King of the undead

Fall concerts with Oregon Symphony and Saloon Ensemble keep Danny Elfman's music alive

Those of you who just can’t get enough Brahms and Beethoven are lucky: you get to hear those guys all the time on myriad concerts and fresh boxed sets and so on ad apparently infinitum. But if your favorite composer happens to be alive, or works in video games or film, or both–well, that leaves you with fewer options. The situation could be a lot worse, of course; we do still get ample performances of Andy Akiho, Gabriela Lena Frank, Gabriel Kahane, Caroline Shaw, et alia, and most orchestras (our beloved Oregon Symphony included) make a point of playing a few concerts of film and game music every year.

There’s a barter involved here, though: the cultural institutions that paid for the music in the first place (Hollywood, Nintendo) still exert a powerful influence over the continued performance of the music they commissioned, which is to say soundtracks rarely take center stage and their composers almost never write directly for the concert hall.

It’s no secret to anyone that the present author’s favorite composer is Danny Elfman (except in academic circles, where I claim it’s Stravinsky), and it made a wonderful birthday gift this year to hear his music performed twice in my adopted hometown. The two concerts could hardly have been more different–symphonic Batman screening at The Schnitz, homey Nightmare hootenanny at Alberta Rose–and both shows were firmly indebted to the visual and narrative elements that birthed the music. Satisfying though both experiences were, the frame felt somewhat intrusive, and left me wishing I had more opportunities to just listen to this guy’s music the same way the rest of you get to listen to The Decomposing Austrians.

Screen and frame

In the case of Oregon Symphony’s Batman, the entire concert had a strong element of frustration: what the hell is that screen doing there? Why are they showing a goddamn movie during the symphony? And it’s a goofy movie too, friends. It was fun watching it again, especially for the sake of appreciating the scoring craft and considering how extensively the bad old grimey ‘80s have returned to our world, but what would have been really nice is to listen to this music the same way we listen to a Shostakovich symphony.

Now, some will say there’s not enough substance there to justify a concert. That, of course, is nonsense–John Mauceri has been conducting this stuff as Proper Concert Music for years now. And is the music really less substantial than, say, one of Haydn’s fluffy and inconsequential symphonies? Yes, dear reader, I am comparing Danny “used to sing in a horror pop band” Elfman to Papa Franz Josef “basically invented classical music” Haydn.

But I refuse to yield; in fact I could add several other classical composers to this list. I’ll bet you’ve already forgotten all about that weird Ubu Roi thing the symphony played earlier this year; the only thing memorable about it was the stand-up comedian. I won’t even get into the disastrous Unsuk Chin violin concerto or the utterly useless Goss guitar concerto or the endless revisitations of Stravinsky and dear old inoffensive Haydn. For every thrilling Theofanidis percussion quartet concerto there’s an aimless Adams string quartet concerto; for every soul-shaking Corigliano symphony there’s a tired old Mendelssohn symphony.

All that being said, in terms of total minutes of music Oregon Symphony has devoted more playing time to Elfman this season than any other living composer, including newly appointed Creative Chair Kahane, and that really does count for something–it’s something to be grateful for. And their performance of the Batman score was truly terrific, with those elegant strings and brash brass and precocious percussionists giving the same love to this 30-year-old symphonic score that they give Shostakovich and Khachaturian.

The low winds deserve special thanks–from the creepy contrabassoon and bass clarinet up through mournful english horn and melancholy oboe all the way over to the lone alto sax–for nailing Elfman’s signature dark, nasty, oh-so-Russian sound. Even the expanded horn section–often the weakest link in this superb orchestra–dug deep for the Wagnerian pomposity that gives the score its heroic heft. And the PSU choir! Who can forget their take on the magical chants that guide Batman and Vicki Vale in their “Descent Into Mystery?” Yeah, plenty to be grateful for here.

But if they want to really satisfy this writer, they might look into some of Elfman’s concert work–the kind that needs no screen. Sure, his new Violin Concerto is pretty damn difficult, at least according to commissioning soloist Sandy Cameron, but isn’t that the point? Or how about the percussion concerto he’s composing for Colin Currie, who has so recently given Portland audiences such delightful performances of Andrew Norman and Andy Akiho concerti? Even Elfman’s first concert work, 2004’s Serenada Schizophrana, would make a good addition to any colorful orchestral program (perhaps paired with Prokofiev, who heavily influenced Elfman’s orchestral suite). Considering the enthusiasm I saw and heard during Batman (and last year’s Nightmare Before Christmas), I’d say this weird, gloomy town is in exactly the right mood for more of this stuff.

Post-apocalyptic cabaret

Earlier this month–just in time for Día de Muertos–I got to hear Elfman’s music a second time, and the setting couldn’t have been more different. Saloon Ensemble bandleader Jason Wells–in skull-faced costume as the Mayor of Halloweentown–welcomed the audience to his seventh Nitemare B4 Xmas show, mumbling deliberately on select SEO keywords like “C********” and “T** B*****” (no one likes getting sued by big bad D*****, though Wells did give a proud shout out to local animator Henry Selick, who actually directed the popular movie about to be performed in its entirety.)

Saloon Ensemble bassist Jason Flores (left) and bandleader Jason Wells (right) in 2016. Photo courtesy of Jason Wells.
Saloon Ensemble bassist Jason Flores (left) and bandleader Jason Wells (right) in 2016. Photo courtesy of Jason Wells.

Wells gestured upstage at the costumed band and stage full of gravestones and spiderwebs. “Because this isn’t about that, it’s about another guy”–here the audience tensed, ready to cheer—”…Danny Elfman.” After the woos subsided, Wells expressed gratitude to Elfman, who “inspired me like no other.” And no mumbly redaction would be necessary here, because although the whole movie would get a truncated-but-coherent performance over the course of the evening, it really is all about the songs for Wells. “And we paid the royalties, so we’re good there,” he concluded with a ghoulish grin.

In my preview for this year’s show, I had this to say about Wells and company’s unique take on the beloved holiday cult classic:

We wrote about this hootenanny a few years back, and this weekend’s resurrection looks to be more of the same: a semi-staged, full-band-with-singers concert performance of the mythological holiday singspiel, costumes and all. Basically they treat Nightmare like it’s the damn Threepenny Opera–which, of course, it basically is. Picture a Deadwood-style Old West house band playing Weill from scores delivered by Pony Express and you’ll have a fair idea of what this show feels like.

Alberta Rose, all dressed up with nowhere to go. Photo courtesy of Jason Wells.
Alberta Rose Theatre, “all dressed up with nowhere to go.” Photo courtesy of Jason Wells.

And yeah, that was pretty much exactly the vibe. If we really are, as some have suggested, in the midst of a slow-motion apocalypse that’s slowly transforming our industrial present into a post-industrial future, then we might consider what that future will look like. “A lot like the past” is one clear answer, but our cultural reference points will be drawn from an era that looks like and sold itself as The Future–meaning we’re headed for a Firefly-style society that feels like the Old West but knows about Star Wars and quantum physics.

Did you ever see that old movie Reign of Fire? It’s got Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey and a lot of dragons, but there’s one pretty prosaic scene that stands out amidst the fiery apocalyptic struggles. The survivors of the Dragon Apocalypse are hiding out underground, and the main thing they’re doing down there is surviving: growing food, raising families, entertaining each other with little plays.

One of those little plays is an old legend called The Empire Strikes Back, and when that story’s big reveal arrives the kids huddled together watching it–kids who have never seen the Greatest Movie of All Time, because they’ve never seen a movie–all gasp in shock. Nothing like the end of the world to make art fresh again.

That scene was all I could think of while watching the Salooneers do their thing this year. It’s easy to imagine cult-phenomena like Star Wars, Rocky Horror, and The Big Lebowski surviving the media that birthed them, just as Shakespeare’s work transcended its inception as dirty Elizabethan propaganda and evolved into a cornerstone of World Literature. After the oil runs dry and the lights go out and the climate wars have drowned all the cities, whoever’s left will be huddled in ruined old churches and shopping malls, putting on shows like this one.

Because Saloon’s Nitemare is many kinds of show–a kid’s show, a variety show, a retelling of a seasonal myth, a big-band dance show, an enthusiastic singspiel–and there’s something timeless about that sort of despecialization; the production’s smattering of amateurish elements only added to that feeling. But that’s not to say that any of it was poorly performed–the show was grand, simply grand, and the band kicked ass, with extra points to the vocal trio and to wolf-headed saxophonist Joshua Cliburn for bridging Elfman’s ‘30s-obsessed Weill/Ellington style and the Saloon Ensemble’s hokey Lawrence Welk, Benny Hill, cantina band schtick.

And special extra points go to Saloon leader Wells for making this whole thing happen and keeping it all together without–ahem–losing his head. Dude was doing a hell of a lot of work on this show: as The Mayor, he has a ton of dialogue, and that overlaps with his more general role as Emcee (which he performed with extraordinary grace and large doses of Vaudeville humor). He also played guitar and banjo while leading a dozen-odd musicians through zesty, playful arrangements of Elfman’s zany, twisty songs; if you’ve never led a live theater band in a show with a lot of other moving parts, be grateful. It’s exhausting work, and Wells managed it like a master of light (and a demon of fright, and he’ll scare you right out of your pants).

On top of all that, Wells sings almost all of the Jack Skellington songs, and those are some damn difficult numbers. Elfman wrote all that stuff for his own broad, powerful voice, and he did it at a time when he was at the top of his game as a singer. There were moments when the material was clearly a bit outside of Wells’ range, but that didn’t stop him from ripping through it all with rough nimbleness that had me thinking, again, of Wild West shows.

Then there’s the rest of the variety show, cheesy and sometimes literally cheap but no less entertaining for that. Wells’ mayor costume included a simple paper mask for when the literally two-faced politician turns from cheerful grimace to dismayed scowl; in one memorable scene, a similarly inexpensive bit of paper fire illuminated a little Charlie Brown Christmas tree. The costumes all had a ragged, patched-together, punk-rock quality–just like the ragged, patched-together, punk-rock costumes the citizens of Halloweentown wear in the stop-motion original. How perfectly Portland.

The leads, skeleton Jack and stitched-together Sally, were played by a pair of stilt-walkers: Michael Patrick Connolly (in his Nitemare debut) and Patricia Charms. They didn’t sing–Wells and the vocal trio handled that, with Teresa Boyd’s Kate Bush-like delivery of Sally’s Song a high point of the evening–but they did deliver all the regular dialogue; mostly they strutted around the stage and through the audience, and even performed an appropriately sweet and earnest pas de deux for the finale. Even the few rough spots–you ever try dancing on stilts while dressed as a skeleton?–just added to the charm.

Michael Patrick Connolly and Patricia Charms in Nitemare B4 Xmas. Photo courtesy of Jason Wells.
Michael Patrick Connolly and Patricia Charms in ‘Nitemare B4 Xmas.’ Photo courtesy of Jason Wells.

Same goes for the Oogie Boogie number, traditionally reserved for the showcase of fancy stage stuff when the story’s villain–with kidnapped “Sandy Claws” as his captive audience–strides around and shows off. Local “cowboy comedian” Leapin’ Louie had a bunch of tricks up his sleeve, from lovely lasso stunts to juggling BBQ implements to riding a unicycle–all in an absurd, chain-bedecked burlap costume that he can’t hardly have been able to see out of.

The best part of his act was the whip work, loud and crisp and right in time with the music. Like Connolly and Charms, Louie stumbled slightly a few times, and Wells even had to cue the band to keep going during the final (and ultimately successful) unicycle attempt, but that was all part of the show. If you don’t fall every now and then, you’re not taking enough risks, and the show’s rickety riskiness was a huge factor in its success.

Topping it all off: the “all-ages” aspect. Children (of all ages) sang along heartily to “Making Christmas” (the homemade lyric signs are a nice touch), and the show stopped several times for costume and screaming contests–both of which got snapped up this year by a young audient dressed as Sally, whose prize-winning scream was not only shrill in the ear-piercing supersonic style proper to little girls but also complex and full of all the terrors of the night. That scream is going to haunt me.

The hootenanny, in other words, was a perfect example of what it looks like when the people take matters into their own hands–when a love of music and myth overrides institutional concerns and “the enemy of the good” and creates a living theater. I hope this show runs for a century.

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And now, as a little holiday dessert for those of you who’ve stuck with me so far, I’d like to take this opportunity to share something I wrote for the latest issue of Subito, the student-run journal I edit for PSU’s School of Music and Theater (hard copies of which can be obtained at the music school office in Lincoln Hall).

Alive and Able

In 1938, British composer William Walton turned down an offer to score the film Pygmalion—he was more interested in composing a concerto for violinist Jascha Heifetz and didn’t have time for both. Walton, who had already scored four films and later scored several more, wrote to his publisher: “It all boils down to this: whether I’m to become a film composer or a real composer.”

In 2017, violinist Sandy Cameron and conductor John Mauceri premiered U.S. composer Danny Elfman’s Violin Concerto “Eleven Eleven. Cameron and Mauceri have been performing and championing Elfman’s work for years, with Cameron playing an especially Oistrakh-like role in the concerto’s development. You can hear the results on their 2019 recording.

Listeners will have to decide for themselves whether this is real music. The ear catches Shostakovich right away (Elfman called Shosty’s first violin concerto “the holy grail”), and that gorgeous, sarcastic, bittersweet flavor can be almost overwhelming. But Elfman can never really hide the glow of California sunshine, and his work has always borne the mark of fellow percussion-loving Californian mavericks Harry Partch and Lou Harrison.

Harrison’s personality in particular animates this concerto, perhaps even more than Shostakovich’s does. Playfulness and excitement illuminate even the darkest moments, and throughout we hear a joyful exuberance which would sound manic coming from an unhappier composer. Elfman’s long waves of melody (“the audience’s take-home pay,” in Lou’s witticism) all have a sly catchiness that will break your heart while you hum them in the car. One violin cadenza is accompanied by nothing but percussion, an homage to Harrison’s Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra. Here is a composer who’s not only still getting better—he’s still having fun!

Elfman’s career has been pretty abnormal, at least compared to Walton’s. Legends of fire-breathing and other devilry surround his early years as a singer-songwriter, and the prolific film composer has often joked, “if I were to die today, my tombstone would read ‘Here lies Danny Elfman: he wrote The Simpsons theme’.”

In the album’s liner notes, he describes his journey to the concert hall as one of inner necessity:

A few years ago I came to the conclusion that I didn’t just want to write orchestral music totally free from the influence of film, I virtually had to in order to keep my sanity. Finally, I came to the decision that I would take time off from my film work to write something for the concert hall every year, for as long as I’m alive and able.

Reviews of the concerto have been enthusiastic, and new concert works are already planned, including a percussion concerto for Colin Currie and (as Elfman recently told BMI), “a ‘semi-secret’ personal project that involves a chamber orchestra and my own voice.”

3 Responses. Have your say.

  1. bob priest says:

    Hey Matt,
    Given your enthusiasm for Elfman & that you are now headed into concert production, why not mount his Piano Quartet on one of your gigs? I bet you could enlist someone like Mike Hsu to be part of such a worthy project.

    • Thanks Bob, that’s a fantastic idea! Might make a good pairing with the percussion quartet he just wrote for Third Coast…I smell a collaboration with PPG ;D

      • bob priest says:

        I like it & bet you could probably invite Danny to town for the concert & maybe also schedule a film evening with him giving a talk before the projector rolls.

        My sense is that he is doing so well that he might consider the gig for basic expenses &/or just the sheer pleasure of it.

        In other words, I’m cheering for your “Danny Elfman Project!” Heck, maybe send a note telling him how much his music means to you. I bet he’ll reply!

        BTW, I’m distantly “connected” to Danny via the fact that an old band mate from Revelation (1968-69), Kerry Hatch, went on to become a member of Oingo Boingo for several years.

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