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Saturday, 27 October 2012 16:38

Concert review: Follow the yellow brick road with Ward Stare and the symphony at Powell Hall Friday through Sunday, October 26-28

Concert review: Follow the yellow brick road with Ward Stare and the symphony at Powell Hall Friday through Sunday, October 26-28
Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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When you think of the music for the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz”, the first names that probably come to mind are Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. Their songs “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “If I Only Had a Brain” have been firmly ensconced in the Great American Songbook for decades.

The real heavy lifting in the soundtrack, however, was done by composer/arranger (and Broadway veteran) Herbert Stothart, who combined Arlen’s tunes with original material (including the famous “Wicked Witch” theme) and even a bit of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” into a seamless, Oscar-winning score. “Oz With Orchestra”, the brainchild of Emmy Award–wining producer John Goberman, combines a remastered version of the film with “entirely new transcriptions” of that award-wining score played by a live orchestra.

As performed by the symphony under Ward Stare, the result is an ear-opening experience that has given me an entirely new level of respect for Stothart’s work. Heard live, the music reveals fascinating orchestral details inaudible in the original soundtrack and demonstrates how skillfully Stothart and his arrangers (George Bassman, Murray Cutter, Ken Darby, Paul Marquardt, and Roger Edens) used Arlen’s melodies as motifs to accompany the action.

Granted, some of those details may have been added as part of those “new transcriptions”, but on the whole this struck me as the aural equivalent of a historically appropriate gut rehab of an older home. Combine that with the beautifully restored Technicolor print of the film—Oz had never looked so vibrant—and you have a night out that any “Oz” fan is sure to love.

“Oz With Orchestra” is also a reminder of why Ward Stare’s star is on the rise. Conducting a program like this requires a set of skills that are not, I suspect, common in most conservatories. Mr. Stare has to not only keep track of the printed score and his musicians, but also two monitors—one with a timer and one with the film itself. It looks like a multitasking nightmare to me; he deserves a medal of some sort for pulling it off so well.

I think it might also be a challenge to accompany singers whose performances are essentially cast in concrete. Normally singers and conductors can communicate with and adjust to each other. Here it’s strictly a one-way information flow and, in fact, there were times when the filmed singers weren’t always completely in synch with the live orchestra.

There were also balance issues between the film soundtrack and the orchestra, at least on opening night. Some dialog got lost in the music, as did some lyrics in the big ensemble numbers. Part of the problem might be that the voice tracks for "Wizard of Oz" still have that tinny 1939 sound, so they don't project as well as newer films. This wasn’t an issue with “Lord of the Rings”, for example, even though the orchestral forces there were much larger. This is, of course, a problem that could be easily addressed with a few tweaks, so it might already be fixed by the time you read this.

The bottom line is that “Oz With Orchestra” is family fun in every sense. There’s even a costume competition one hour prior to each concert, with a prize pack of symphony goodies (including tickets to December’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie night) for the winner.  There are two more showings Saturday at 7 PM and Sunday at 2 PM, October 27 and 28.

Go and enjoy. Or I’ll sic the flying monkeys on you.

Next at Powell Hall: the regular season returns on November 2 and 3 with Yefim Bronfman performing Brahms’s imposing “Piano Concerto No. 2”. Helsinki Philharmonic Chief Conductor John Storgårds will be on the podium for the concerts, which include Webern’s arrangement of Bach’s “Ricercar No. 2” from “The Musical Offering” and Schumann’s “Symphony No. 4”. For more information:

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