We caught the second show, on Saturday, September 1st. The rain that passed through Cuyahoga Falls earlier that afternoon returned mid-concert, but there was no washing the spirit out of the thousands who flocked—most with tots in tow—to the open-air venue for an evening of music (sponsored by Ohio’s own Smuckers) from some of the best films of the last twenty years.
There are cartoon movies and there are computer-animated films. Then there’s Pixar, whose electronic artists began digitizing their dreams (and ours) back in the mid-Eighties. Their first full-length project, 1995’s Toy Story, was a marvel for the eyes—and probably would’ve had more folks gushing over the groundbreaking techniques used to bring a child’s playthings to life were the story itself not so gosh-darn compelling.
But that was the idea. With Pixar, the eye-catching animation is always subservient to clever, heartwarming narrative. And these guys have been holding fast to that mission ever since, entertaining audiences while helping us appreciate better the human condition by letting us perceive it from a distance. Even after being bought up by Disney, Pixar imbued bugs, cars, and action figures with feelings we understand all too well and putting them in situations with which we can easily sympathize.
Some of argued—with merit—that the storytellers and artists at Pixar can eek more drama out of their anthropomorphized subjects that most directors can elicit from live action Hollywood A-listers. Yet the laughter and tears in the studio’s finest works—like Finding Nemo, UP, and the Toy Story trilogy—are always earned; the writers almost never go for cheap thrills.
Music costars in every Pixar effort. L.A. songwriter Randy Newman—whose mantel boasts several Oscars and Grammy Awards—authored Toy Story’s youthfully jubilant score (and three original songs, including “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”), setting the bar high for every Pixar composer to follow.
Pixar in Concert underscored the significance of the sounds heard in each of the firm’s releases (save the recent Monsters University and Planes) as the Cleveland Orchestra interpreted the scores live onstage in byte-size musical pastiches. Scenes from the movies were projected on a big-screen hanging over orchestra (and on two satellite screens just outside the pavilion for the massive audience on the lawn)—but the dialogue was stripped, allowing music alone to carry the moments.
Granted, it probably helped that a majority of those in attendance have seen most—if not all—the films at the cinema or on DVD at home with the kiddies. These pieces may not get radio play, but they’re considered “hits” to anyone with children born between, say, 1999-2010. Indeed, while listening to the musicians warm up, my nine-year old son would matter-of-factly inform me—after hearing just a sprinkle of notes on a viola or flute—“That’s from UP” or “That’s in Cars 2,” without any visual references to clue him in.
For those who might’ve missed any of these blockbusters in theatres, well, the orchestra’s delightful montages certainly did the trick—and in a fraction of the running time.
Los Angeles conductor Richard Kaufman flew in to celebrate the movies and music, and was the perfect fit for the program, given his nine seasons with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “Friday Night at the Movies.”
Kaufman began his violin studies before most kids learn to ride a bike. Now a pops conductor laureate with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Kaufman attended the Berkshire Music Festival at Tanglewood in the Fellowship Program and earned a B.A. in music from California State University at Northridge. He made his Cleveland Orchestra debut in 2009, visited town again last summer, and gave the impression he was genuinely thrilled to be back in the Buckeye State for the Pixar party.
The show was scheduled to begin at 8:30pm, but at 8:45pm orchestra Director of Personnel Carol Lee Iott informed us that the production staff was having “technical difficulties” with one of the lawn’s two movie screens. She apologized and said the concert would begin forthwith, and that the crew would keep at the persnickety screen.
And with a wave of Kaufman’s baton, we were off.
Newman’s lively Toy Story fanfare revisited the friendship between cowboy Woody and spaceman Buzz Lightyear, their daring escape from Sid’s house, and rendezvous with Andy’s other toys for the big move to a new house. Newman’s cousin, Thomas (Cinderella Man, Shawshank Redemption), authored the music from Finding Nemo—whose cartoon accompaniment chronicled the adventures of the titular clownfish, his overbearing father Marlin, and their forgetful friend, the Pacific blue tang Dory.
“Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky…” sang conductor Richard Kaufman, editorializing the clouds surrounding the Cuyahoga Valley with a quote from Billie Holiday’s “Stormy Weather.”
“This is a night of captivating stories, brilliant animation, and remarkable music,” Kaufan announced, praising the blockbuster motion picture studio founded over 25 years ago as a computer effects adjunct to Lucasfilm—home of the Star Wars movies.
Michael Giacchino’s (Mission: Impossible III, Cloverfield, Star Trek: Into Darkness) kinetic score for Ratatouille was faithfully recreated to clips of the film’s Parisian rat realizing his dream of becoming a chef. Assisted by Alfredo, the bumbling human cook, Remy appeases snobbish food critics while avoiding a prickly restaurant owner and determined French health inspector.
The video for 1998’s A Bug’s Life collapsed the exploits of ambitious worker ant Flik and his love interest, Princess Atta, into six-minutes of insect circus silliness set to Randy Newman’s sweeping score.
“You having a good time?” asked Kaufman, checking on the near-capacity crowd between bits.
A round of enthusiastic applause assured the conductor and orchestra that everyone was, in spite of a passing downpour that soaked (but probably cooled) the folks sprawled on the lawn. The juxtaposition of the Newmans continued with a medley of Thomas Newman’s music from 2008’s Wall-E, whose onscreen accompaniment showed the curious garage-picking robot of the future cavorting with sleek new friend, EVE, amidst Earth’s rubble and in space, amongst the stars.
Then the orchestra returned to Randy (a 2013 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee) with excerpts from Toy Story 2 (1999) and Cars (2006). Snippets from the former focused on Woody’s introduction to Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl and his refurbishment by a quirky old doll-maker while imprisoned in Al’s apartment. Images from the latter showed red racer Lightning McQueen meeting the residents of Radiator Springs—including “Doc” Hudson Hornet, Sally Carrera, and Mater, the dimwitted tow truck.
The music from Cars and its 2011 sequel stood apart in this setting with their inclusion of folk and rock ‘n’ roll instrumentation: A pair of guitarists onstage strummed steel-strings, plucked banjos, and twanged on electric guitars to enliven the scores from the Route 66 and Americana-influenced motorcar comedies.
Perhaps the night’s most emotional moments arrived just prior to intermission, when Kaufman and friends reproduced the sounds from the tear-jerking “marriage montage” at the beginning of Pixar’s wonderful 2009 offering, UP. The Blossom audience was treated to the emotionally-charged clip (whose condensed five-minute love affair rivals that in just about any full-length film in dramatic impact) in its entirety. The lifelong romance between Carl Fredricksen and wife Ellie unfurled—from childhood to old age—but rather than end with Carl’s devastating loss, the music and movie outtake concluded on a positive note, with the beginning of Carl’s “new adventure” at Paradise Falls (Russell, Dug, and Kevin didn’t appear in the clip).
The video screen at house right was repaired during the break, eliciting cheers from spectators on that side of the lawn. Michael Giacchino’s booming, brass-laden, throwback spy score for 2004’s The Incredibles featured a video mishmash of Brad Bird’s superhero Parr family squaring off against Syndrome’s indestructible robots. Selections from Cars 2 (also by Giacchino) included mandolins—and even an accordion—to accentuate the picture’s European (French and Italian) settings. But the bulk of the piece highlighted the film’s opening gambit, during which secret agent BMW/Aston Martin hybrid Finn McMissile infiltrates (and escapes from) the villain’s oceanic oil rigs, like some automobile analog to James Bond.
Measures from 2002’s Monsters, Inc. veered from jazzy, big-band blasts to quiet strings as Sulley and Mike Wazowski work the “scare floor” and (last) navigate the facility’s vast store of bedroom doors dangling from rollercoaster tracks.
“Nobody can swing like the Cleveland Orchestra!” quipped Kaufman.
Another lump-in-the throat moment came courtesy Mike’s reconstruction of Boo’s door and Sulley’s (off-screen) reunion with his giggly little human friend. The orchestra authenticated Patrick Doyle’s (Secondhand Lions, Thor) music from Brave by featuring bagpipes and Celtic woodwinds in the mix. Overhead, the screens showed stubborn redhead Merida displaying her archery skills, running away from her castle home, and reconciling with her mother-turned-bear, Queen Elinor.
The program ended as it began—with a final dose of Randy Newman, Woody, and Buzz—as Kaufman lead the Cleveland players through the dramatic beats in Toy Story 3. Strings and horns ebbed and timpani thundered as the toys grappled onscreen with Lots-O-Huggin’ Bear, dodged destruction at the dump, and made misty-eyed peace with their college-bound owner, Andy.
Special guests Wayne Bergeron and Bernie Dresel performed on both nights. The two musicians—trumpeter and drummer, respectively—played on many of the original Pixar soundtracks recreated for the Blossom revelers.
The orchestra has too many members to name or single out for praise, but suffice it to say its roster of violinists, cellists, bassists, and woodwind / brass players were sublime. The musicians looked and sounded great, and if anybody felt that covering cartoon tunes wasn’t quite as challenging as masterworks by Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, et al—well, they kept it to themselves.
It was an enjoyable, family-friendly time, and we highly recommend hanging with the Cleveland Orchestra for other “pops” events—or any orchestra event—next season.