The most famous four notes in musical history belong to Ludwig van Beethoven:
The second most famous four notes in musical history belong to Nacio Herb Brown:
Nacio Herb Brown has not quite received the acclaim of Beethoven, and when we think of Singin’ in the Rain, which we enjoy Saturday (preferably without the rain) it is Gene Kelly’s iconic splash-dance number we think of, but it is Brown’s melodic gift that inspired that iconic moment in film; four simple notes and we’re all inspired to break out the umbrella. And since NSO@Wolf Trap is as much about music as merriment, let’s hear it for the composer: from the 1920s to the 1950s Brown was among the most prolific and successful songwriters. Unlike most of his peers, who cut their teeth in New York’s “Tin Pan Alley,” Brown was born in New Mexico in 1896 and moved to Los Angeles at age five. His teenage years coincided with the birth of Hollywood as the global center of film making. Each year saw new stars, new directors, new technology, and ambitious young men and women eager to be part of the new gold rush.
Though the early years of “talkies” were good for young composers like Brown who, with his partner, lyricist Arthur Freed, wrote dozens of hits, the flame of fame proved fickle for performers: just as stars of Broadway didn’t make the cut to film (they declaimed beautifully from the stage, but their looks didn’t hold up well under bright lights and close-ups), stars of silent film didn’t make the cut to sound (they had exquisite faces that captured light and expressed emotion, but their voices betrayed their image). Buster Keaton, Clara Bow, and John Gilbert didn’t make the cut. Joan Crawford and Ronald Colman did just fine. Unquestionably the biggest risk was Greta Garbo, whose mysterious allure, producers worried, might be compromised by her dusky Swedish accent. When she made her entrance in 1930 film version of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie all of Hollywood held its collective breath. When she uttered those immortal words —“Give me a viskey. Ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” ― all of Hollywood breathed a collective sigh.
By the 1930s film musical stars emerged, such as Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald, and every studio was clamoring for songs, mostly for review-type films that featured Broadway melodies alongside fresh material and specialty numbers. Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed flourished in these years, with elegant songs that found popular success, despite the fact that many of the films in which their songs were featured were short on plot and substance.
Singin’ in the Rain, from 1952, is a remarkable tribute to the last days of silent films and the early days of talkies and musicals. It’s also an amazing tribute to Brown and Freed. Despite his success as a lyricist, Freed went on to far greater success as a producer of musicals at MGM. For Singin’ in the Rain he reached into the trunk-load of songs he and Brown had previously written for other films and, with the talents of screenwriters (and well-known lyricists) Betty Comden and Adolph Green, turned the sad tales of silents-to-sounds into serious fun. Unlike 1950’s Sunset Boulevard, a noir classic in which a faded silent star becomes a grotesque recluse, or 2011’s The Artist, a modern-day silent in which a great silent star falls on hard times, Singin’ in the Rain follows a zany trio of actors who, with pluck, hijinks, and enormous talent, make the cut by turning tragedy into comedy. Co-directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly magnified the magic with choreography that at times seems to defy the laws of physics and furniture.
Singin in the Rain credit Emily Zoladz Copyright 2008 The Grand Rapids Press. All rights reserved. Used with permission
Strangely enough, Singin’ in the Rain was not a hit when it was released. Its performance at the box office was mediocre, and it was nominated for few awards. (The big hit that year was The Greatest Show on Earth, a blockbuster from director Cecil B. DeMille, who definitely made the cut from silents to talkies!) Like many classic films it took decades to receive critical recognition and popular acclaim. And that popularity refuses to wane: Gene Kelly’s iconic dancing routine has been parodied in everything from the film Wall-E to the television show Glee. Debbie Reynolds sang a snippet of “Good Morning!” on Will & Grace. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, known for his sober, moving performances in film, brilliantly recreated Donald O’Connor’s Make’em Laugh routine when he hosted Saturday Night Live last year.
Of course, no classic film musical is ever fully anointed until it makes its NSO@Wolf Trap premiere with live orchestra. We hope for glorious weather Saturday, but we do hope you brought your umbrellas. Should it rain we expect no less than for everyone to sing and dance!
─ Emil de Cou,
NSO @ Wolf Trap Festival Conductor
Puns, pratfalls, japes and jests have been the stuff of comedy since Euripides, and this Thursday and Friday we celebrate the best: the determined Wile E. Coyote and the doe-eyed Road Runner, the rassum-frassum of Yosemite Sam, the odiferously romantic Pepe LePew, and those greatest of vaudevillians, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.
Forgive me for being an old Fudd E. Duddy, but I do believe that the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies produced by Warner Bros. for four decades, and their various siblings at other studios, such as Hanna-Barbera at MGM, represented a Golden Era in sophistication. Don’t get me wrong: I think the shenanigans of Matt Groening (The Simpsons) and Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, American Dad) are funny as heck, and, dagnabbit, they are darned talented, but they don’t hold a stick of dynamite compared to such directors as Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, voice actors like Mel Blanc and Arthur Q. Bryan, and composers like Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn. What Walt Disney did to elevate fairy tales, the men of Warner Bros. did to satirize them. You won’t always find happily-ever-after in the land of Looney Tunes, but you’ll definitely find homages to Punch & Judy, Laurel & Hardy, and the Marx Brothers.
Naturally, my bias toward the original Warner Bros. creative teams has much to do with their embrace of the classical music repertoire. Many of them were the children of European immigrants, fine musicians schooled in the canon of great works. More importantly it was also a time when Americans of all backgrounds recognized Stokowski and Toscanini and Kostelanetz as celebrities on radio networks that boasted fine symphony orchestras. Classical music wasn’t remote; one could wink at Rossini and make a nod at Borodin and movie-goers would get the joke. The inverse became true just as well, with children inculcated by popular culture in the major melodies of great works. The seven-minute one-real “What’s Opera, Doc?” directed by Chuck Jones, which we will enjoy this Thursday and Friday, has surely introduced more audiences to Wagner than the Bayreuth Festival itself.
If you tawt you taw some of this program on previous NSO@WolfTrap programs it is because they are classics that always pass muster on repeat viewing and hearing. What would an evening with a live orchestra be without “The Rabbit of Seville” and “Baton Bunny”? Or perhaps my all-time favorite, “Rhapsody Rabbit,” with Bugs mugging as the great pianist Arthur Rubenstein.
My good friend George Daugherty, who created and conducts “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II”, and who continues to keep it ever-fresh and ever-funny, brings us newly-added classics with familiar characters: "Duck Amuck," "Robin Hood Daffy," and "Show Biz Bugs,”, plus two eye-popping new 3D (that’s three dimensions, not three ducks) theatrical shorts: "I Tawt I Taw A Puddy Tat," starring Tweety and Sylvester, and "Coyote Falls," starring Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, and Pepe Le Pew, the skunk with the overly-romantic heart and the warmth of Maurice Chevalier, crooning “Tip-Toe Through The Tulips” and “Baby Face.”
So break out the succotash and come wiz me to ze casbah. Vee shall make beautiful musics together!
Toujours, l’amour, toujours,
TM & © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
There is an old joke in the world of musical theater: “Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?”
The answer: “The contract.”
The very best of plays and musicals appear effortless in performance, but the reality of theater is an intensely collaborative art form. Aeschylus, Shakespeare, O’Neill, and Albee have all had to bow to highly opinionated producers, directors, stage designers, and, often, much to their grief, actors with strong egos. In the musical theater collaboration is even more essential: the words, music, and story must be seamless. Those simple, timeless Broadway classics can take years and the input of many to refine.
The most celebrated contributors to musicals—after the diva, of course—are generally the composer and lyricist. Sometimes they are written by two (Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Kander & Ebb) sometimes by one (Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Jerry Herman). Unfortunately, the authors of the underlying dramatic narrative and dialogue—known in musicals as the “book”—are the Rodney Dangerfields of musical theater: they get no respect. When the show is a hit no one knows their name; when it is a flop they inevitably get the blame. But without them the composer and lyricist would have no dramatic structure on which to hang their score.
When you think of Annie Get Your Gun you think Irving Berlin, not the witty team of Dorothy and Herbert Fields. When you think of The Sound of Music you think of Rodgers & Hammerstein, not Howard Lindsey and Russel Crouse. Michael Stewart knocked hits out of the park with the books of Bye Bye Birdie; Hello, Dolly!; Mack and Mabel; Barnum; and 42nd Street. Hugh Wheeler? A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd. Thomas Meehan? Annie, Hairspray, and The Producers. Winnie Holzman is the gifted writer who adapted Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked into a smash.
Steven Reineke, conductor — photo by Sian Richards
These men and women write original stories—or adapt novels, memoirs, films, no less a feat than creating something out thin air—that establish character and advance the plot. Of course, audiences have always loved review-style shows pasted together with Tin Pan Alley hits, a tradition that continues with popular jukebox musicals today, with their floss-thin narratives linking hits from ABBA, Motown, The Four Seasons. But ever since Show Boat and Oklahoma! (both featuring books by their lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II), serious theatergoers have come to expect a good “book” musical, even if they haven’t a clue who wrote it. They expect multi-dimensional characters with nuances of humor and heartbreak: a charming lover who turns to crime (Billy Bigelow in Carousel), a charming criminal who turns to love (Harold Hill in The Music Man), a glamorous dictator’s wife who inspires the love of the people (Evita), and young missionaries who, in the depths of bitter disillusionment, find the true meaning of their faith (Elders Price and Cunningham in The Book of Mormon).
Thanks to these book writers Sunday we bring indelible characters and their stories to life. With the National Symphony Orchestra as our symphonic diva we can hear the lusty stripper inside Gypsy, the seductress cigarette factory girl behind Carmen in our opening orchestral works. Stephanie J. Block and Julia Murney will interpret the entranced Eliza Doolittle, fresh from the Ambassador’s Ball in My Fair Lady; Christine Daaé on the verge of stardom in Phantom of the Opera; and Dorothy, pining for a better place than home in The Wizard of Oz.
Stephanie J. Block
Sometimes one diva isn’t always enough. In one of the most heartbreaking duets in theater, the conjoined twins of Side Show, based on the real lives of 1930s stage performers Daisy and Violet Hilton, sing of their inseparable bond. And it is the divided aspirations of Elphaba and Glinda that drive the plot of Wicked and ultimately drive them apart.
Of course in addition to the divas of theater there are also real-life divas to celebrate, character as nuanced and rich (in every sense) as the songs they have brought to life. Sunday our soloists interpret four of the greatest: Donna Summer, Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, and Diana Ross.
Oh, what books their lives would make!
Emil de Cou
NSO@Wolf Trap Festival Conductor
Music, for most ordinary folks, is a source of inspiration: as we sit in the audience of a concert hall watching exceptionally talented musicians or relax on the lawn at Wolf Trap watching the moon and the stars, we allow melody, harmony, and rhythm to create aural and visual images that elicit joy, tragedy, adventure, nostalgia, and yes, sometimes a nice little nap. The colors of composition bring form and contrast to these threads of feelings, weaving the familiar with the unfamiliar into comforting quilts of sound.
"El Capitan, Sunrise, Winter, Yosemite Valley, California", 1968 — Photograph by Ansel Adams — Collection Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona — © 2013 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust
At the other end of the spectrum, those extraordinary folks we call composers seek inspiration from all sources, from a simple nature walk (Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale”) to paintings (Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition) to indigenous sounds discovered on travels to foreign lands (Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World.) Saturday we share with you several works which have as their source the land and the nation that we the people have shaped from sea to shining sea.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990), born in Brooklyn to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, is without question the definitive “American” composer.
From the concert hall (Appalachian Spring and Symphony No. 3 with its iconic “Fanfare for the Common Man,” with which we open tonight’s performance) to ballet (Rodeo and Billy the Kid), to opera house (The Tender Land) to the movies (The Heiress), Copland drew inspiration from myths and men alike, fusing the eclectic cultural traditions that comprise our great nation. A Lincoln Portrait, written in 1942 as a wartime paean to our peaceable sixteenth president, incorporates his writings and speeches, including his greatest oration, the Gettysburg Address. Our narrator, Senator Mark R. Warner (VA), joins a distinguished roster that has included great citizens from Marian Anderson to Neil Armstrong, Katherine Hepburn to Alec Baldwin, Vincent Price to Al Gore, and every mayor of every America city with an orchestra. Copland was the ultimate Johnny Appleseed, spreading notes of our heritage that have blossomed into enduring musical imagery.
Senator Mark R. Warner
We pair Copland’s tribute to Lincoln with a modern-day portrait of the Great Emancipator drawn from musical excerpts from Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln, with its score by one of our country’s most prolific, popular, and exceptionally versatile composers, John Williams. Born in New York, but raised in California, Williams’s television and film scores have not only celebrated our national experience, but our shared dreams of explorations to other worlds as well. Our favorite superheroes, intergalactic explorers, mischievous boys, and hungry sharks all owe their leitmotifs to Williams’s sweeping vistas of sound and adventure.
Composer-performer Dave Brubeck (1920 – 2002) was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. His early loyalties were divided between his mother’s devotion to music (she was a classically trained pianist) and he father’s devotion to the family ranch (Brubeck originally planned to be a veterinarian). By the time he reached the Army music won the battle and soon his improvisatory style of composition and pianism led to the formation of various ensembles, most notably the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which defined the genre of “cool jazz.” Later in his career he returned to classical forms and left a substantial legacy of definitively American jazz and classical works.
Brubeck’s legacy also included several talented children, among them son Chris, a noted musician, who frequently collaborated with his father both as performer and composer. Saturday the NSO@WOlfTrap presents their “Ansel Adams: America,” a pairing of live orchestral music with more than 100 images by the legendary photographer. Much like Dave Brubeck, Ansel Adams (1902-1983) was a Bay Area native with conflicting youthful interests. Encouraged by his parents toward a musical career, with serious aspirations to be a classical pianist, he became enraptured with photography and ultimately focused his talent on the camera. A pioneer in the use of technology, an avatar of ecology and naturalism, and a daredevil in his pursuit of just the right shot, Adams created some of the most enduring images of our natural wonders: mountains, valleys, glaciers, sunsets. Like all great iconic artists, his images grace museums and dorm rooms alike.
Like Aaron Copland, George Gershwin (1898-1937) was also born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents and, like Copland, went to Paris in the 1920s to study with the great composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, whose vast embrace of eager students ranged from Walter Piston and Roger Sessions to Quincy Jones and Phillip Glass. Ironically, she rejected Gerswhin: “I have nothing to teach you,” she said. She was concerned that classical training might ruin his authentic jazz style. Still, Gershwin didn’t leave Paris empty handed: a natural genius whose mind sponged up every idiom imaginable, for An American in Paris he chose as his inspiration the urban fabric of Paris, with strands of nostalgia for America woven in. Despite its French accent, it is a ne plus ultra American work.
From Coney Island to Yosemite, from the Hudson River to the Golden Gate, with the hills of Kentucky and the fruited plains of the Midwest in between, this concert is made for you and me.
Emil de Cou
NSO@Wolf Trap Festival Conductor
Full moon and empty arms
The moon is there for us to share
But where are you?
Big sigh. What Sinatra classic could be better suited to an evening at Wolf Trap than “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” that ode to love, loneliness, and longing. Except, of course, that Friday isn’t a Sinatra program, the moon won’t be full until next Tuesday, and as long as we are gathered together with the NSO@Wolf Trap none of us is ever alone.
What links us to that 1945 Sinatra hit is its melody, drawn with unabashed admiration from the third movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, which will be performed Friday with the NSO by the child prodigy- turned-wonderful-young- adult pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, who turned 21 just two short weeks ago. We can only hope that his parents—umm, grandparents—swooned to the sounds of Sinatra.
Lyricist Buddy Kaye and composer Ted Mossman, who “borrowed” Rachmaninoff’s melody shortly after the composer’s death in 1943, allowed a slightly more dignified mourning period before digging up Chopin for “Till the End of Time,” a hit for Perry Como, also in 1945, derived from Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major. Such adaptations are as old as music itself; every generation of composers has borrowed from the previous. Chopin has long been a favorite of pop songwriters, from “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (the Fantasie Impromptu in C-sharp minor) to Barry Manilows’s “Could It Be Magic” (the Prelude in C minor). “Tonight We Love” (Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1) was a Liberace standard and Pachelbel’s Canon in D major has been sampled about a bazillion times from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to the Pet Shop Boys. My all-time favorite is “Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh!” by Allan Sherman, the campy letter from summer camp set to Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” from La Gioconda.
But I digress.
Rachmaninoff was a great pianist as well as a composer and his works for piano are at the heart of the virtuoso repertoire. The Second Piano Concerto, which the composer performed at its premiere in 1901 under the baton of Alexander Glazunov, was Rachmaninoff’s first foray back into composition after a long period of writer’s block provoked by the dismal response to the 1896 premiere of his Symphony No. 1. “Cured” as a result of early techniques of psychotherapy, he regained the confidence to compose, and yet the opening of the first movement of the Second Piano Concerto reveals perhaps a bit of trepidation: the opening passage, for solo piano, emerges so softly as to be inaudible. When the orchestra establishes the first major theme the piano takes an accompanying role. It is not until well into the first movement that the piano embraces the main themes, and oh, what a theme it is, as are the gorgeous melodies of the second and third movements. Sweeping, passionate, romantic in the tradition of Tchaikovsky, the fellow Russian who Rachmaninoff knew and admired and whose death he deeply mourned. How fitting that Friday we pair the performance of the “Rach 2” as it is nicknamed in the classical music community with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.
It is always a joy to hear the Second Piano Concerto reinterpreted by successive generations of pianist, but we are also fortunate that Rachmaninoff was born in the era of recording. You are not likely to leave tonight’s performance by Benjamin Grosvenor longing for more, but should you still have the strength for a second helping you can hear Rachmaninoff performing the complete Second Piano Concerto on YouTube. Just as there is the thrill of hearing an emerging star interpreting a masterpiece, so too is there a certain thrill in hearing a composer playing his own music.
There is a certain familiarity to Rachmaninoff’s pianism, both in his compositions and in his recordings. Like many great performers—Horowitz, Heifetz, Pavarotti—his sound is unmistakable. A friend’s uncle, a music lover raised on the Upper West Side of New York, spent many afternoons crouched in the doorway of a neighboring apartment listening to a pianist who was a frequent visitor and who practiced at the home of friends. Afraid of punishment for eavesdropping it was decades before he confessed to his misdeeds to his quite elderly mother.
“I couldn’t resist,” he explained. “He sounded just like Rachmaninoff.”
“It was,” she replied.
–Emil de Cou,
NSO@Wolf Trap Festival Conductor
THE LOST WOMAN
Traviata is a tough word to translate into modern English. Literally, it means a woman who is led astray. Violetta is sometimes called a “fallen” woman, but even that description sounds quaint and artificial to our 21st century ears. Were Violetta to surface in modern America, where and who would she be? A young model who works for a high-end escort service? A beautiful movie starlet who lives the Hollywood high life, paid for by her high-profile producer lover?
No matter the context, Verdi’s heroine is a woman who has lost her way. She was a poor but beautiful girl who had few good options available to her, and choosing the life of a courtesan—being supported by a series of wealthy lovers—provided her with comfort and security. Violetta never really thinks that she deserves more than that, and when faced with the possibility of true, honest, and enduring love, she mistrusts it.
Corinne Winters, Violetta Valéry
Alfredo is the man who loves her. He’s a country boy from Provence, and he is out of his element in the demimonde of Parisian society. His father, the upstanding Giorgio Germont, knows that allowing Alfredo to continue in a relationship with a woman of Violetta’s previous reputation would ruin his entire family. Although he might have, in a different place and time, been compassionate toward this fragile young woman, his present circumstances demand that he protect his own family first and foremost.
ART IMITATES LIFE
Verdi’s opera was modeled on a hugely popular novel and play of the time, La dame aux camélias, by Alexandre Dumas’ fils (son of the author of The Three Musketeers). The novel was a thinly veiled account of the author’s own struggle to reconcile his love for a courtesan with his proper bourgeois upbringing.
Nicholas Pallesen, Giorgio Germont
Photo by Laura Rose
During the time he composed La traviata, Verdi wrestled with his own version of family disapproval. He and his partner Giuseppina Strepponi were not married, and the people of the provincial town in which they lived made her life miserable. Verdi’s mentor and father figure strongly disapproved of the relationship. It’s no wonder that the music that Verdi poured into this opera feels so intimate and personal.
A SUBJECT FOR ALL TIMES
By the time he wrote La traviata, the 39-year old Verdi had already been through several run-ins with government censors. He fully anticipated that this new opera—the redemption story of a high-society prostitute—would provide fodder for a new battle with the government.
Perhaps surprisingly, the censors only made two demands: that Verdi change the name (originally Amore e morte—Love and Death) and that the costumes be changed from modern-day dress to 18th century clothing to lessen the shock value. The composer resisted but did not win the fight; the premiere production was set in the year 1700.
Benjamin Bliss, Alfredo Germont
Verdi called La traviata “a subject for our times.” It came at a point in his artistic development when his choice and treatment of material became somehow more personal and less formulaic, and it was clear that he intended to hold a mirror up to the society in which he lived. This production is set in the Roaring Twenties, where Violetta is a music hall actress who is pursued by many men yet lives a precarious existence, depending on the generosity of wealthy patrons. Her freedom-loving lifestyle clashes with the conservative prewar society represented by Alfredo’s father.
The enduring attraction of La traviata proves that it is a subject for all times, not simply a story from a distant past. The clash of generations and classes will probably always be with us, and Verdi’s genius allows us to glimpse what can happen if protocol is allowed to eclipse love when the stakes are highest. A father’s instinct to protect, a young man’s willingness to forget his lover’s past, and the selfless sacrifice of a lost woman—they all come into vivid focus through the wonderful lens of opera.
—Kim Pensinger Witman
Director, Wolf Trap Opera & Classical Programming
Like cars, radios, televisions, and computers, there was a time when gaming devices were the stuff of early-adopter technology aficionados, formerly known as geeks. As geeks become geezers, new generations embrace (and demand) ever-more challenging forms of electronic entertaining, which have now become dominated by immersive video experiences. And new entertainment experiences inevitably require new music.
Video Games Live: Bonus Round!
The infiltration of technology on music often meets opposition from traditionalists—an entire movement preserve the integrity of early music performed with “original” instruments, film music is still persona non grata on “serious” concert programs—but innovations in musical hardware and software themselves are as old as mankind itself, and often influence, or are influenced by, emerging art forms. (Art form? Did he call video games an art form? He did!) Musical Darwinism has resulted in the transformation of the sheepskin drum to the glockenspiel to touch-sensitive digital drum pads. The DNA of the modern piano carries strands of the clavichord, the harpsichord, and the pianoforte.
Innovations in music have been driven by inventors, such as Robert Moog, who pioneered the synthesizer; by musicians, who want a little more flexibility here and a bit more resistance there; and by composers, who hear a certain sound that cannot be achieved with current instruments. For the Valhalla motif in the Der Ring des Nibelungen composer Richard Wagner wanted a certain sound that would add to the palette of his musical imagery. He commissioned Adolphe Sax, inventor of the eponymous saxophone (alas, there is no eponymous Euphonius) to create the Wagner Tuba, a peculiar combination of tuba and horn. It is more easily transportable than Dr. Doolittle’s Pushmi-pullyu, an equally peculiar combination of gazelle and unicorn, but the sound is equally mellifluous.
Photo by: Mark Glaviano
Like cars, radios, televisions, and computers, video games ultimately found themselves a technology in search of music. The generic robot voices of the 1960s inner galactic adventure Lost in Space (“Danger, Will Robinson”) with its score by John Williams, gave way to the digital tones of R2D2 in the outer galactic adventure Star Wars (“Sir, it’s quite possible this asteroid is not entirely stable.”) with its score by John Williams, gave way to Mario and his descendants in otherworldly adventures such as Pokemon, Super Smash Bros., Skyrim, Journey, Street Fighter II, Earthworm Jim, Donkey Kong Country, Chrono Cross – none of which, by the way, have a score by John Williams.
Tonight’s program, Video Games Live: Bonus Round!, was produced by a similarly prolific Williams-esque composer, Tommy Tallarico, who is renowned for his digital musical scores to video games. With more than 300 game titles to his credit, he ranks as a superstar in the field. To share his works and those of others with new audiences, he created the Video Games Live concert format, linking live orchestral accompaniment to an interactive visual experience designed to appeal to console-addicted kids and their spaced-out parents.
Tommy Tallarico, Host/Creator
The essential goal of video game music is much akin to film scores: it should add to the narrative but not detract, it should define characters but not be coy, it should add color and mood, but not be too bright or mournful. Pokemon is a cheerful game, which its lyrical score clearly reflects. Skyrim and Chrono Cross are designed to be played for long periods of time, unlike sports games or battle games with their quick—and often violent—action. Console games in which two people play (in real time, in a real room, with real people) require a different timbre than single-player games played online with strangers, oftentimes for hours or days or forever. Interactive ventures that derive from treasure hunts and cat-and-mouse games use music as conscious and subliminal clues to create or release tension: this motif signals danger, this one opportunity, this one a friend, this one a foe.
Classical purists who have no direct relationship with video gaming may wonder why we elevate this music from the platform for which it is designed and re-invent it for the concert hall (or the outdoor pavilion, as it were). Those, of course, are the same people who a couple of generations ago might have turned their noses down at “pops” concerts, which similarly embraced the sounds of other platforms (the bandstand, the dance floor) and brought them into the staid world of orchestras. Does it make a difference how, where, or when a genre emerges and expands to new audiences? Certainly not with the NSO@Wolf Trap. Here we embrace the new just as we cherish the classic. Whether it originated on the pan flute, dulcimer, viola da gamba, Victrola, Atwater Kent, Theramin, PlayStation, or Xbox, all the worlds of music are welcome on our stage.
Emil de Cou
NSO@Wolf Trap Festival Conductor
If one were to take the best monologues of Carson, Letterman, Leno, and Conan, the bawdiest items from the National Lampoon, the Onion, and College Humor, and the funniest sketches from Saturday Night Live, write them down on parchment, bind them together, hide them in a monastery for 700 years, and then, a century later, set them to rousing orchestral music, you might get something approaching German composer Carl Orff’s magnificent cantata Carmina Burana.
Though concert and movie audiences have been mesmerized by Orff’s 1936 solemn, magisterial score, the work is actually based on the satirical writings of a bunch of smart-alecky wisenheimers who lived from the 11th to 13th century in various areas of modern-day Germany and France. Wandering minstrels, clergy, university students, and late night biergarten hosts wrote and collected these jibes and japes in which they spoofed morality, love, death, the Church and, most of all, each other. There are love songs, drinking songs, and short plays, truly something for everyone. And if comedy is, indeed, tragedy plus time, then even the most salacious and tasteless of the Best of Carmina Burana were kosherized like Borscht Belt one-liners when, after being lost for several hundred years, they were discovered in a monastery in 1803.
Soloist - Juan José de Léon, tenor
When his musical adaptation of Carmina Burana received its premiere in 1937 in Frankfurt, Orff was primarily known for his initiatives in early music education (much of which remains a rich source of instruction for teachers and students today). But with Carmina Burana he had an immediate hit that made him known for his composition (and remains a rich source of royalties for his heirs today). Tainted a bit by its popularity under the Nazi regime, the work escaped the boundaries of fascism and quickly became an international staple of theaters, concert halls, and movie houses, where its fateful “O Fortuna” chorus became a popular film score theme. Like Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, Orff’s apocalyptic musical imagery has become the very essence of grand cinematic action.
Soloist - Ying Fang, soprano
Why do audiences love Carmina Burana so much? Despite its complexities, it comes across as a simple work: a logical structure, an underlying humor, and a melodic and harmonic structure that derives from comfortable Renaissance styles rather than the more dissonant mid-century modern works that emerged in Orff’s time. Such simplicity is, of course, very hard to achieve, and Orff has been rightfully compared to Stravinsky for the sophistication of his rhythmic and compositional legacy.
Carmina Burana is set into 25 movements, ranging from purely orchestral, to orchestra with soloist, to orchestra with full chorus. Though the most popular presentations of Carmina Burana these days are predominantly choral-orchestral versions, Orff’s intent was that it be performed according to a quasi-operatic style of theater he developed combining music, movement, and speech. A production closer to the composer’s intentions would include sets, lighting, and choreography. Orff would most likely have been as amused as his estate remains enriched from adaptations for everything genre from period instruments to heavy metal, from dance club electronic to video games.
Soloist - Steven LaBrie, baritone
photo © Devon Cass
The inspiration that Orff’s Carmina Burana offers to visual experiences is equally matched by the visual inspiration artist Viktor Hartmann (1834-1873) provided to composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). The two became great friends around 1870, but the friendship was sadly cut short by Hartmann’s sudden death at age 39 from an aneurysm. At a posthumous exhibition of Hartmann’s paintings Mussorgsky was inspired to compose his great virtuoso piano work, Pictures at an Exhibition. He carefully selected 15 works that reflected Hartmann’s travels through Poland, Italy, France, as well as themes from their native Russia.
What becomes a legend most in music are those works that are continually embraced, performed, adapted, and orchestrated, and Pictures at an Exhibition has been arranged by dozens of great pianist and orchestrated by the finest composers and conductors, most notably Maurice Ravel and Leopold Stokowski, whose rendition we hear at this concert. Ironically, much like the lost-and-found history of Carmina Burana, most of the 400 Hartmann paintings displayed at the exhibition were lost. Though we can only hope they will be rediscovered someday, to have inspired the likes of Pictures at an Exhibition is no small legacy.
Emil de Cou
NSO@Wolf Trap Festival Conductor
Before the hit BBC series Downton Abbey enchanted American television viewers with its chilly portrait of the British upper class, the naturalist and documentarian Sir David Attenborough has taken English audiences, for more than six decades, around the globe in a series of classic cultural and geographic journeys. Long considered a national treasure in the UK—a combination of Sir Edmund Hillary, Richard Evelyn Bird, Robert Falcon Scott, Carl Sagan, and Indiana Jones—Sir David’s charisma is as cherished as his curiosity. As a pioneer in the field of life science documentaries, he inspired and narrated the 12-part series Frozen Planet, from which the concert’s video comes: stunning imagery of the Arctic Circle and Antarctica accompanied by the George Fenton’s well-received score performed by the National Symphony Orchestra.
Photo © Fredi Devas
A co-production by the BBC, the Discovery Channel, Open University, and a host of international television networks, Frozen Planet focuses on life forms and the environment in both the North and South Poles. Each episode explores seasonal, historical, and even political aspects of the poles and their effect on the global environment. Indeed, so sensitive was the seventh episode, in which Sir David himself appeared on screen and presented the harsh consequences of global warming at the hands of man, that several co-producers—even the Discovery Channel—hesitated to include the episode in its line-up. But backed up by hard science and Sir David’s impeccable reputation, the show went on. Though Alec Baldwin—whose love of and sincere commitment to the arts should also be noted—served as narrator when the first six episodes debuted on the Discovery Channel in 2012, Sir David remained the face and voice of the controversial seventh episode.
Photo © Chadden Hunter
Much like the programmatic masterpiece Pictures at an Exhibition (which Wolf Trap audiences will hear Friday, July 12th) in which Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky created evocative musical imagery to accompany Viktor Hartmann’s paintings of places and people, Fenton has taken elements from his extensive score to create a musical journey that evokes the Frozen Planet visual narrative: exotic animals, changing expanses of ice and water, stark imagery of forbidding winters, and the fundamental spirit of exploration and discovery.
Photo © Jeff Wilson
In addition to their explorations in time and space, Sir David and the BBC have been intrepid explorers in technology, advancing their cinematography through the eras of black and white, color—pardon me, colour—high definition, and now 3D. To explore public displays of active volcanoes and the private lives of polar bears without disrupting their habitats, state-of-the-art aerial photography was developed. In recognition of their work Sir David and the BBC have garnered countless awards on every continent for their programs—oops, I did it again, programmes—including four 2012 Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards for Frozen Planet.
Button your overcoats. It’s going to be a chilly ride.
Emil de Cou
NSO @ Wolf Trap Festival Conductor