Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Toronto Symphony Goes Sci Fi

April was a LONG month.  I think I survived it out of anticipation for the series of Toronto Symphony Orchestra concerts May 1-2.  I wonder if when they planned the timing of this concert they knew all the "space-y" things that were happening that week.  For example, it contained the day when Star Wars aficionados get to say "May the Fourth Be With You" and this weekend was the return of the super moon, when the moon is at its closest point to Earth.  Bring Jack Everly to the podium, and I'm very easy to please otherwise, but add to his knowledge, charm, and energy a program of science fiction music...well I'm so glad May finally arrived!

Sci Fi Spectacular did not disappoint.  Perhaps a disclaimer first.  I've seen this concert before, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  However, I don't think it has sounded better than the three (yes I went to all of them with various friends...have to keep getting more people hooked on the symphony and Pops is my methodology :) ) shows over the two days.

Where to start!  How about with night one.  It was good, but not great, there was no knock your socks off feeling.  Half way through the opening "Star Wars: Main Title" I felt like it was loosing steam.  Cymbal crashes and trumpet fanfares just didn't have the power and volume I was expecting.  Perhaps evidence of the single rehearsal these programs typically have (I'll assume the same is true here and they rehearsed Tuesday morning with the first concert that night) there were moments of slight staggered entrances from basses and muddled brass entries.  It was nice to see some principal players that don't always do the Pops concerts in attendance.  Including both principal clarinetists!  The reason they were there became clear in the second half, keep reading.

These small issues worked themselves out, and I was thrilled with the volume Wednesday afternoon.  Perhaps I just needed to sit closer.  With seats in L4 right over the strings, the trumpets and horns were gloriously clear, all entrances sounded precise (save one, more on that later), and I could see the music!

A Jack Everly program is not complete unless it includes one of his own arrangements.  "Lost in Syndication" filled that role and included themes from at least nine different sci fi television shows.  I doubt this concert will be shelved any time soon but in short there's a contest of sorts related to the contents of this piece, so answers to that helped me figure out some of the themes, but people seem to always recognize and name the same four ("X-Files", "The Jetsons", "The Twilight Zone", "Lost in Space").  I also recognized both "Stargate SG-1" and "Atlantis" (I think) which left three more.  I was at a loss for how to determine them.  Problem solved when one of the violinists was warming up with this piece open!  Talk about picking themes from various eras and locations, the second segment was "Space 1999" a British show from 1975 which lasted two seasons and had a different theme in season 2.  The one played was season 1 and in a much improved orchestration to the original.  "My Favourite Martian" and a brief quote of "The Outer Limits" were the remaining two.  My playlist can now be completed!

As Jack pointed out the show really was a tribute to John Williams, with his music making up half the program.  Concerts drive me to the library and this was no exception.  After the NAC version in 2009 I sought out Somewhere in Time and rewatched all the Star Wars.  Thursday I went to get ET: The Extra Terrestrial.  All I remember of seeing this as a child was one scene where the house is all in plastic quarantine and it freaked me out so much I've never watched the movie again.  I think it's time for a re-watch with a new perspective.  Besides having ET described as a "little guy who got back to the ship too late, but just wants to go home, and all he had to do was call and the others would come get him" (paraphrased, the direct quote was much more eloquent) is just too endearing to not want to see how the  details of the story play out.  It's not hard to tell why it's one of Jack's favourite all time scores, and he conducted with a "palpable sense of involvement" (to borrow a great phrase from Baltimore Sun writer Tim Smith).  The TSO played it beautifully garnishing them what looked like a heartfelt thank you and rousing audience applause.

From the poignant flying theme and action, we moved to pure romance involving time travel.  Christopher Reeve plays the fellow who falls in love with a leading lady from another time (Jane Seymour), and Christopher Plummer as "Captain Von...oops I mean the villain" also stars.  John Barry is probably best known for his James Bond music, but the love theme from "Somewhere In Time" is him at a romantic best.  The movie is based on the book "Bid Time Return" which was optioned by Universal and actually got made.  (Total aside that image is exactly like the one at the end of Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel with Anne and Gilbert on the bridge, right down to the angle of his neck!)

Supermen (George, Christopher, and my personal preference, Dean Cain)
Taking us back another year to 1978 Jack described how Christopher Reeve revitalized the super hero/comic book genre by not being the slightly pudgy George Reeves Superman from the earlier TV show.  He then threw out the random factoid "did you know that George Reeves was one of the Tarleton twins in Gone with the Wind?" I couldn't hear the reply from someone in the audience but it caused Jack to laugh at himself saying "I've got no where else to go with that" and pulled things back on track with the "Superman March".  Not the first time that happened either.  Earlier in the day when he mentioned Reeves by name it was followed with "there's a quiz later, take notes, I'm just full of this stuff".  And maybe that's why I enjoy these concerts so much, it's live and never the same twice.

As a special guest was Lt. Sulu from the original Star Trek, Mr. George Takei!  The wonderful music "literally transported" him down from the Enterprise and he provided some background on what was going on at the time Gene Roddenberry was creating Star Trek.  The ship was to be a metaphor for Spaceship Earth with Uhura representing Africa, Sulu Asia, Kirk North America, with Chekov from Russia and Scottie from (where else?) Scotland to round things out.  Given the civil rights movement, Cold War, and Vietnam War happening in the real world, combining this group of people and showing how diversity could work together was a pretty radical concept for the time period.  He also pointed out that with James Doohan (Scottie) and William Shatner (Kirk) both being Canadian, Canada was really over represented :)

After using the phrase "infinite diversity in infinite combinations" as many times as possible, Mr. Takei introduced a "crew member with an angelic voice who had just beamed down, Lt. Kristen Plumley".  Ms. Plumley arrived in original series uniform and they chatted about the "star ship Thomson" feeling like home with the "mothership" hovering above.
Inside Roy Thomson Hall
She also mentioned the diversity of Toronto architecture and, having had a chance to see the ROM by the Wednesday evening performance, had one of the best lines of the night when she compared the building to a crashed spaceship!  The audience laughter and applause was enthusiastic in what I will take to be agreement (mine sure was).  I hadn't considered that before, but what a good description!
Royal Ontario Museum
She stuck around to sing the vocal line in the original series theme with Mr. Takei's wonderful deep voice adding "Space, the final frontier..." but you know the rest :)  Then the orchestra took over with the best arrangement (by Calvin Custer) I've heard of Trek themes (Some wonderful soul has provided proof of this here...go TSO!).  Deep Space Nine and Voyager come alive when one gets to watch it played by a full orchestra...ah, just stunning music!

The second half opened with the "Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey".  The movie where you left the theatre saying "wow, that was fantastic, but what was it about?"  Jack discussed how it's common for directors to put a music temp track to a movie to give composers an idea of the type of music they would like (composers of course hate this).  Anyhow Stanley Kubrick put a temp track of classical music together and showed it to Alex North, the composer.  North went away and composed a 90 min symphonic score.  He came back, Kubrick said thanks, it was put with the film, and as far as North was concerned that was that.  Then the movie was released, with the original temp track.  Apparently North and Kubrick parted never to speak again.  The Alex North score has been released, so that's now added to my "to listen to" list.  At the matinee this piece wasn't blooper free.  In fact it had the most glaring oops I've heard from the TSO.  The last three notes were meant to be separated,  whether conductor liberty or an actual rest in the music I don't know, but someone (in the cellos perhaps? it was definitely strings) missed the break between the third and second last notes and came in early.  One time only mistake, that night it was perfect.

In keeping with the theme of aliens coming to earth, Richard Dreyfuss had "encounters, close ones, of the third kind" and the TSO provided the appropriate suite of music.  The violins made these incredibly eerie sounds by holding a note then sliding their fingers up or down the string.  So creepy!  The five note theme makes an appearance as well, although plays a much expanded role in the movie.  This piece is so much better live than any recording I've found.  In order to hear the fading out of that five note theme as it's transfered between the woodwinds at the end, you have to have the volume way up, or be in a very quiet location.  Seeing it performed though, you know exactly where it is!  What I don't remember hearing was the brief quote of "When You Wish Upon a Star" which is in recordings.  According to wikipedia Spielberg wanted that to play over the closing credits, but was denied permission.  Perhaps that's why Kristen Plumley sang it as a solo, so not that out of place after all.

With the brief introduction of "this next piece is the most poignant and profound that John Williams wrote" audience snickers from those who had read the program started.  At the opening clarinet trio of "Cantina Band" from Star Wars, the rest of the audience joined in realizing the tongue in cheek nature of that description.  Clarinetists Joaquin Valdepenas, YaoGuang Zhai, Joseph Orlowski, and bassoonist Fraser Jackson precisely played the lighthearted, cooky piece which had a fantastic drum solo as well.

Takei and Plumley from same concert
with Detroit Symphony in March
The evening returned to a somber note with six short selections from the 1951 movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still".  George Takei returned to give Klaatu's departure speech, which has elements as relevant today as when they were written over 60 years ago!  Jack gave a brief plot summary of the aliens who come to earth, land in Washington, DC ("because it's Hollywood so where else would they land?") and as Klaatu exits his ship and reaches for a gift, he's shot since the people have seen his ship coming on radar and are terrified.  The rest of the movie is about how people deal with fear.  This was the first Hollywood score by Bernard Hermann who went on to become famous with his music for Hitchcock films.  He actually started in radio on the East Coast and did "War of the Worlds" with Orson Welles.  When Wells went west for Citizen Kane, he took Hermann with him.  There are times when at the end of a piece in that moment just after the conductor relaxes and before the applause starts when there's a feeling of awe that hangs (This is not the same silence or feeling that comes from wondering whether the piece or just the movement is over and whether one should clap).  It's a silence when the "wow what did we just hear" thought bubbles can almost be seen over people's heads.  I've heard it last longer, you could easily pick out the one person who started clapping first, but this piece had that moment.  In fact it was actually my TSO newbie friend who commented on it.  It's a wonderful thing to experience and quite difficult to describe.

Even harder to describe is the energy that existed by the end of the Wednesday night show.  I've heard it said performers feed off audience energy, and I'm sure that's what was happening.  Even I felt energized by it.  I mean this music is demanding particularly the brass parts.  Although you wouldn't know by listening, the mark of the master is making what's hard appear easy and that was the TSO.  When was the last time four trumpeters were on the stage and playing the entire concert, or five French horns?  Kudos to trumpeter James Gardiner!  This was now the end of the second show that day and it ended even stronger than it started.

Jack also seemed more animated and that was poured into "Duel of the Fates" and "Throne Room and End Title" from the Phantom Menace and Star Wars respectively.  The orchestra was game and it was clean, tight, powerful and thrilling when he broke out his glowing light saber baton!  The phenomenal and appreciative audience were quickly on their feet ending a fantastic final evening of music.  As always Jack graciously acknowledged the orchestra at every opportunity.
Final bows
My one disappointment with the ending was the lighting.  The NAC orchestra did this the best.  On the last cut, of the last piece when Jack finishes with the "light saber" in the air, the lights went out!  A darkened stage with just stand lights and this orange glowing baton creates a wonderful mental image as you walk out the door with "Duel of the Fates" and Sanskrit running around in your head.  The NAC also had lasers, but given the very open nature of RTH, I can understand possible logistic issues for that.  But a black out would have been so effective!

Originally when I saw it was the "Sci Fi" show coming this year, I was hoping for something different. But I'd forgotten what a wonderful showcase it is for pure symphonic music.  There's not a chance for the orchestra to be relegated to roll of back-up band for a singer, the whole evening keeps them front and centre.  Not to mention how the futuristic subject matter really did suit one of the last pops concerts for the 90th TSO season, having started with 100 years ago on Broadway.  Jack concluded by saying that it's always a pleasure to be back in Toronto, so even though he's not scheduled for next season, I hope talks are underway for the one after that!

For perhaps a less biased review, you can check out the National Post's opinion here.  Personally I'm shocked that they felt a Pops concert worthy of review, but if it draws more attention to the Toronto Symphony I'm all for it.

Thanks to all involved for a wonderful series of sci fi concerts!


  1. Just attended this concert tonight in Raleigh, NC, with the NC Symphony -- fantabulous!!! I had heard NC Symphony play the Custer Star Trek suite before, but not with a vocalist -- that was a treat! BTW, no Atlantis in Everly's "Lost in Syndication" -- too bad, as I like it way better than the SG-1 theme. There was a quiz after that piece tonight -- the first person who could name four of the shows won tickets to the NC Symphony's performance of Holst's "The Planets" plus sci-fi themes this weekend.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the concert. Thanks for commenting!