NSO at Wolf Trap - You’ve Got a Friend in Pixar

Pixar in Concert
Tickets available here.

Playbill notes by Emil de Cou

Music has been an essential element of the cinematic experience since live pianists accompanied silent films. One could say these musicians were the earliest “film composers.” Lacking formal scores (at best distributors offered cue sheets) the local virtuoso (Aunt Florence, the piano teacher) improvised, interpolating popular songs of the day or famous classical melodies. Audience quickly learned the musical vocabulary:  tremolo meant suspense, plink meant pratfall, serioso meant heartbreak.

As talkies emerged, Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songs were synchronized into film, not just technically, but artistically.  Walter Donaldson’s “My Mammy” became synonymous with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, just as Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” made Top Hat as memorable as the footsteps of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Studios created vast musical organizations to weave music into the entire fabric of movies: scores were richly orchestrated, conducted and performed by outstanding musicians (many were refugees from Europe) and backed up with virtuoso voices.  The great mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne got her start in the MGM chorus.

When Walt Disney developed feature animated films he was equally committed to the highest values of song and score. Disney movies in every decade have generated hit songs, which have often become touchstones to the human spirit as much as devices to advance character and plot. Read-along recordings with picture books were the staple of American households and pop crooners turned them into standards.  Seven little men made our labors lighter with “Whistle While You Work.”  A princess immortalized wistful dreams of love with “Some Day My Prince Will Come.”  And what would a fairy godmother or dancing bear be without, respectively, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” or “The Bare Necessities”?

But we need not look back to appreciate Disney’s brilliant marriage of hope and melody.  We need merely look up.  The joys of our evenings here with NSO at Wolf Trap are ever brighter because of a naughty puppet who would be a boy. “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the theme song for the Disney brand, also ranks in the top ten of the American Film Institute’s list of greatest movie songs of all time.  (Need I tell you number one? Hint: rainbow, Kansas, and a little dog, too.)

The 14 films that Pixar Animation Studios has produced, and The Walt Disney Company has distributed, have changed the way a generation perceives animation, but they ratcheted up the musical values as well. Only four composers are part of the Pixar canon, and you couldn’t ask for a more eclectic bunch: cousins Randy and Thomas Newman, descendants of Hollywood film music royalty; Michael Giacchino, a visual artist who cut his teeth scoring early video games; and Patrick Doyle, the esteemed Scottish composer known for his film and incidental music for the works of Shakespeare.  Collectively they command the gamut of musical styles from Acoustic to Zydeco.


The first Pixar film, Toy Story, with music by Randy Newman, reflected the folkish warmth he embodied in pop songs like “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” and “Short People.”  For Toy Story he brought his avuncular style with “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” a buddy song for all time. His jazzy mixture of the effortlessly familiar with the traditional American vernacular can also be found in the scores to A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc.

Randy’s cousin, Thomas Newman, was already well known for his film scores (The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty) before being recruited by Pixar for Finding Nemo.  The traditional Disney acoustical textures were enhanced with synthesizer, exotic instruments and traditional symphony orchestra. What with his technical acumen he was a natural choice to score WALL-E, but surprisingly his music is not all R2-D2 beeps and whistles. Perhaps in homage to John Williams’ space epics, the WALL-E score maximizes orchestral forces.

Michael Giacchino studied at New York’s School of Visual Arts, only later taking music classes to score his video games, including the Medal of Honor series. For Cars and The Incredibles, he demonstrated an impressive skill for driving traditional melody into technically complex scenarios. His touching, witty music for Ratatouille, with its pastiche of French themes, is among my favorite film scores of all time.  It takes tremendous heart and talent to turn a rat into a hero. His score for Up, which won an Oscar, offers a four-minute waltz sequence that would make Ravel weep.

For Brave, Pixar went back in time to 10th century Scotland to create its first modern female hero who needed no prince to fight her battles.  The studio plucked a composer from foreign soil to ensure the authenticity of Celtic sound: Scottish-born composer Patrick Doyle, well known for his partnerships with Kenneth Branagh on Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet.  Doyle’s playful score is filled with fiddling and bagpipes.

From Scotland to outer space, from a child’s bedroom to the race track, from the wilds of South America to Paris, from stage to the lawn, we welcome you into the world of Pixar, where music and adventure and imagination collide.

May your dreams come true!

Leap into our festival!

We’re celebrating Leap Day today by getting very excited about all the upcoming events of the Kennedy Center’s Music of Budapest, Prague, and Vienna Festival. Our Maestro, Christoph Eschenbach, is also the Music Director of the Kennedy Center, and he’s leading the charge in both planning and performing in these events. To get a sense of everything he and the NSO are doing in the upcoming weeks, listen to his recent interview with WETA. There’s so much to choose from! (Just hearing about it makes us want to take Deb Lamberton’s protein shake suggestion!)

Like Leap Year, this is a rare opportunityso get your tickets soon!