A Geek Mom’s Guide the The Orchestra

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“I was raised on film. My musical experience is all via film, it’s not from classical music.”

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A highlight from Video Games Live.

Danny Elfman

When I was in fifth grade my class — along with about 8,000 of my closest school buds — were trucked into the splendor of Downtown El Paso, Texas’s Abraham Chavez Theatre for the local symphony’s annual Young People’s Concerts.

They pulled out all the stops to get us younglings to appreciate the parts of the symphony, including having Beethoven emerge from a “Time Machine” that looked suspiciously like a cleverly bejeweled Westing House refrigerator box to conduct his Ninth Symphony and tell us about his life. He would have the audience answer questions en masse with the recurring inside joke “Please zay eet louder, I am becoming hard uf hearing.”  (FYI, if you are parent and don’t get that joke, you need to brush up some simple music history).

To make an already long story short: they did an excellent job by revealing in a fun and visual way one of Beethoven’s most beautiful pieces that is now a favorite of mine….and I was BORED, BORED, SO FREAKIN’ BOOORED!

You see kid, a demographic of which fifth-graders belong, are just wired for the here and now; and Beethoven was sooo 1825. I remembered this fact when my I thought I would get my then 3-year-old daughter to appreciate the classics by taking her to a concert that compared Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to John Williams’s Darth Vader March. She politely sat through the former piece but make no mistake it was all about “Star Wars.” When the orchestra started in on that “Dum, Dum, Dum, dum dum, Dum, dum dum DUM,” (you know it’s in your head now), she was hooked.  Our symphony found the key to opening young minds to the orchestra: Sith Lords!

And they weren’t the only ones. Since then, I have heard and seen plenty of musically-inclined folk from my geeked-up generation who have come to realize movies, television and even video game soundtracks are the opera’s and requiems of today, and there are now more chances to see them.

Fortunately, the presence of iTunes and YouTube make it incredibly easy to both hear and see some of these awesome feats of today’s “classics.”

            First, give kids a sampling of some of the sections of the orchestra, primarily the strings. Violinist and performance artist Lindsey Stirling is best known by non-geeks as a finalist on a show I’m happy to have never seen, “America’s Got Talent.” However, this punky violinist isn’t afraid to show her geek side. Two of her recent hit singles were the “Lord of the Rings Medley” and “Legend of Zelda Medley.”  By popular “fan demand” she even took on “A River Flows in You” for Twilight fans.

            Another great piece featuring strings is The Piano Guys’ “Cello Wars Lightsaber Duel” Star Wars Parody. This one might appeal to boys a little more, but is super cute and actually sounds pretty awesome.

Infuse some percussion in there; more specifically the piano (yes, it is a percussion instrument with string tendencies), and here I refer back to the Piano Guys again, and performer Jarrod Radnich who knocks out some powerful piano solos of themes from “Harry Potter” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Now add the woodwinds and brass in some full concert feats, starting with one I am still bouncing up and down about getting to see live: “Star Wars in Concert.” Since this show toured globally for well over two years, I am confident many of my fellow geek moms did the right thing and took the family to this multimedia concert with live orchestra blaring highlights from all six films, a traveling prop and costume exhibit, laser show and film clips on a massive LED screen all hosted by C-3PO himself Anthony Daniels. I got to cross one off my bucket list after seeing this show.

Two other touring orchestra concerts right up there are “Video Games Live” and “Lord or the Rings: Fellowship of The Ring” in Concert.

“Video Games Live” has been selling out venues worldwide since 2005 and is still making its way around the United States and beyond. This too is an immersive production with full orchestra, choir, and big screen visuals, as well as audience participation. This covers everything from the “old school” classics like Space Invaders and Tetris to today’s big sellers like Halo, Portal, BioShock, Medal of Honor, Zelda, Warcraft and tons more. 

Right now the show is planning concerts well into 2013, so there may be an opportunity to catch this one live in the near future, from the looks of it cosplay and lobby gaming welcome.

“Lord of the Rings” in concert brings Howard Shore’s power score to the stage, with the expected visuals, orchestra and chorale similar to the “Star Wars” and “Video Game” live events. The show is still touring, but it is heading overseas to Europe and Australia this year.  Hopefully soon, with “The Hobbit” brewing, it will make its way back stateside soon.

Quick note for all you Trekkies the “Star Trek” Theme (both original series and Next Generation) continues to be a perennial favorite among symphony orchestras everywhere. The San Francisco Philharmonic even got George Takai to narrate their July 4 performance a couple of years ago; a performance documented on YouTube. 

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Well played, indeed.

Finally, once kids get into experiencing the symphony in action, sneak up on them with some original music. My choice, composer extraordinaire Danny Elfman’s “Serenada Schizophrana.”  Today’s kids may not be familiar with the campy Adam West “Batman” theme (expect mine), but Elfman’s foreboding-yet-nostalgic overture for the Dark Knight is instantly recognizable. It’s no wonder the former Oingo Boingo frontman and mind behind some of the most well known themes in television and movies (‘The Simpsons,” “Tales From The Crypt,” “Nightmare Before Christmas”) would put together an awesome symphony. Elfman once said he never had a burning desire to write a symphony, but this symphonic performance premiered at Carnegie Hall with John Mauceri conducting.  It has Elfman’s signature rhythms with a quirky eerie edge, but features six movements highlight strings, brass, “Bells and Whistles,” as he calls it, and a Spanish language choral movement.

This CD has served as both a lullaby disc for by two-year-old and peaceful deadline-helper for me. Essential Elfman.

Next thing they know, they’ve learned to appreciate the symphony.  By the time their uptight music teacher decides to expose them to the “finer things,” they can both impress and confound her with their music knowledge and proudly hold their own in class. Well, not literally as that’s an awkward afternoon in detention.

Reading bonus for younger kids and really fun grown-ups: Lemony Snicket’s ‘The Composer is Dead.” Yes, the original classical composers, as Monty Python said in song, are decomposing, and that’s what makes them cool. Dead musicians!!!!  The man behind the too-cool “Series of Unfortunate Events” presents a children’s picture book, illustrated by Carson Ellis.  Written like a murder mystery, it sneakily introduces the parts of the orchestra, all suspect in the composer’s supposed whacking in an easy-to understand and joyfully freaky way. It includes a companion CD of classics performed by the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Nathaniel Stookey.

Got any other geeky classical suggestions? Send them to me at lisathegeekmom@hotmail.com. Next month, I’ll give you my idea of what really makes a for a geek mom’s Chick Film…and it ain’t “Sex and The City.”

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