This is it. Halloween. The day the spooks and goblins come out and haunt us in our waking dreams. And some in our evening nightmares. It’s the one day of the year when our inner monsters and alien creatures manifest themselves outwardly in all manner of dress and cosmetic application. The day when we allow ourselves to strip away our inhibitions and put on metaphorical faces for fun and fright.
Ah, but wait a minute. ‘Tis not true, really. Throughout the month of October there are all sorts of festive Halloween related events in Los Angeles. Just about all of the amusement parks have themed activities. Many bars and restaurants do it up for the spirit of the month as well. Even places of employment hold decorating and costume contests.
We all know about these goings ons, but most are probably less aware of another newer tradition in our own southern California. It too is only one afternoon-evening a year. It’s called Eek at the Greek! and it’s something that’s quite worthy of your attention, especially if you’ve a family. It’s held at Los Angeles’ Greek Theater on the Saturday one week prior to Halloween and serves as a great – and very safe – primmer for the actual day itself. You may think of it as Halloween light if you like, but its focus is on the young of our community – something that, frankly, we could use a bit more of in relation to concert going and other true cultural experiences.
One of the most well-meaning aspects of Eek at the Greek!’s sincere purpose for existence is to allow an extremely inviting, comfortable and shielded manner for children to enjoy dressing up, trick-or-treating, and competing in costume contests. But probably most importantly, it’s meant to introduce them to a cultural experience that may be very new to them: the symphonic concert experience. Now, I may be biased because I’m fond of orchestral concerts, but this seems a very worthwhile goal. It’s important for each new generation to be exposed to exceptional classical material. What they do with it after that is up to them, but they should have the introduction.
Eek at the Greek! sincerely does make that introduction very friendly and inviting. But do not make the mistake of thinking of it as a mere kiddie event. It is far from being toned down to, oh, say, Disney radio fare. The works chosen are true classic symphonic orchestrations, brought to lively fruition by Symphony in the Glen’s sixty-piece orchestra. The long-standing conductor behind this gifted and missioned group of artists is film and television composer Arthur B. Rubinstein (many will remember his work from the cult classic film Wargames). The music is played with great professional gusto and precision, yet many in the orchestra do take the opportunity to dress for the occasion, which is certainly part of the fun. Even maestro Rubinstein dawned an eye mask to show the spirit of the Halloween season.
The event is presented in conjunction with the Greek Theater by Nederlander Concerts, which is one of the last family-owned promotional companies out there. They’ve been putting on Eek at the Greek! for five years – this is its fifth anniversary – and they’ve been coordinating and promoting various concert events up and down the west coast for a good forty years.
This year Eek at the Grrek!’s gates opened at 4:30pm, at which point things kicked off in “Trick-or-Treat Village,” where the little ones and the fun-at-heart could wander to and fro, perusing the holiday-festive decorations of ghouls, goblins, cobwebs, and graveyards (I particularly enjoyed looking at the staff’s enthusiastic spirit-filled handiwork).
Within this friendly setting, the kids could enjoy arts & crafts, face painting and trick-or-treating in an environment where parents can relax, unconcerned. There was also a small stage set up on which a host invited little ones to dance and engage in a preliminary costume contest – those judged the best in their age groups would later face off on the Greek’s concert stage. Not all participated in the contests, but all manner of creatures were represented, from various Marvel, DC and Star Wars characters to zombies, witches, ninjas, mummies, princesses, bumble bees, transformers, even a cupcake and a cactus; both of which went on to win top honors in the final phase of the costume contest.
If one was of a mind to – and I was – one could also include in one’s ticket package a visit to the “Hospitality Room” and an outside patio, where a variety of themed snacks could be enjoyed in addition to the good ole fashioned likes of cheese, crackers, meatballs, little smokies and such. Even chili was available. And for the older set there was free beer and wine. At 6:30pm folks could head into the concert venue itself and take their seats for the evening’s main attraction.
The musical program this season busted out of the gates with a strong rendition of Richard Wagner’s potent Ride of the Valkyries – just the sort of thing to set the evening’s mood, grab the kids, and shake them up a bit. This was followed by Jean Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela (“The Swan of Death”); the premiere live-to-film performance of the classic Disney cartoon Hell’s Bells, with music by Carl Stalling; Manuel de Falla’s Magic Circle / Ritual Dance of the Gypsy Witch; and Ghost Riders in The Sky, with vocal accompaniment by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.
What’s interesting about the first chosen piece is that it’s actually part of Wagner’s opera Die Walküre, but is rarely exhibited in that capacity. After the opera was originally performed Wagner continually received requests for Ride of the Valkyries to be performed as a stand-alone piece. This is something he vehemently refused to do and even forbade at first, until demand was so insistent that it wore him down, and eventually he even wound up conducting it himself in London on May 12, 1877.
For the live-to-picture performances Eek at the Greek! has been choosing truly classic, early cinematic animation in which all sound must come from the orchestra itself – not merely music, but every single sound effect. The performance here from The Symphony in the Glen was spot-on and vigorous. Carl Stalling, who was been known for being the same, would have been very pleased.
During the break between the first and second half of the evening’s musical program, the finale of the costume contest took place on the main stage. It was emceed by KTLA’s Doug Kolk, who reports on a variety of live music venues throughout Los Angeles and covers entertainment news throughout Southern California. On this night, however, he seemed to have trouble remembering for even a minute or two what some of the children told him they were. He must’ve been preoccupied with other aspects of his hosting duties, because he frequently had to go back to them for clarification on what they were supposed to be. The ultimate crowd-pleasing winners of the contest would be the aforementioned cupcake and cactus, a zombie prom queen, a headless man, and a member of the canine family. Kolk kept referring to it as a werewolf, but to me it looked like a white Alaskan Husky. (Editor’s Note: Kolk had similar trouble in 2014.)
Act Two brought us Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of the Marionette, Anatol Liadov’s Kikimora, and a dramatic reading-to-music of Edgar Allen Poe’s famous The Tell-Tale Heart by actor Armin Shimerman (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). The final cue was a bouncy rendition of John Williams’s The Devil’s Dance, from the film The Witches of Eastwick.
It’s a quirky bit of notoriety: although Funeral March of the Marionette has been played all over the world since the late 1870s, there are couple of generations now that better know its main bars as the theme to the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The Symphony in the Glen gave the satirical piece (it was originally written to spoof an aloof music critic named Henry Chorely) a plucky performance.
Something that added delight for everyone was Mr. Rubintsein’s inclusion of a line of youngsters in the conducting exercise during the already playful Marionette composition. It had to be a bit of a thrill for these little ones to have a full orchestra playing to their bounce of the baton. There was a significant line, but maestro Rubinstein made sure each child had a shot at the wave, and it all felt timed out just right.
Armin Shimerman’s reading of The Tell-Tale Heart was inspired and lively, and like a classical composition, it started out softly, building ever so metered to its rousing dramatic conclusion, all while accompanied by maestro Rubinstein’s own composition to the tale. And Shimerman’s reading was shown on the theatre’s monitors with the color desaturated so as to add to the gothic feel.
The tale itself is essentially a narration of a murder planned in great detail, but one that is eventually undone by the narrator’s own guilty conscience, which causes him to hear the at-first soft, then later thunderous beating of his victim’s heart, which drives him into a timely confession while being almost innocently questioned by the local constabulary.
An intriguing side note here is that for all the extreme detail in the tale, the first-person narrator never offers a true motivation for murder. This little detail it is left up to the reader, as if Poe were saying, “Do your own choosing. What I wish to impress upon you is the manifestation of guilt, the moral power with which it can take hold.”
The Devil’s Dance provided a wrap-up was a very playful performance by the symphony. John Williams is, I believe by most accounts, one our very best modern composers, and this cue from his Witches of Eastwick score served as just the right tone with which to conclude the evening and send folks out with a hum in their throats and a spring in their step.
The night of Saturday, October 24 was perfect for an outdoor concert. The weather was just right, and the moon hung over the venue as if by design, with just enough atmospheric cover to give it the right touch of ethereal glow, complementing the music and spirit of the evening. I found two of the night’s musical choices particularly enjoyable within this setting: The Swan of Tuonela and Magic Circle / Ritual Dance of the Gypsy Witch. I continuously found myself gazing up at that moon and the trees surrounding the theatre. With many of the branches now leafless, and with the glow from the venue lights, the craggy limbs looked as though they could reach out and snatch up unsuspecting audience members.
There are always minor glitches within live performances, but none much worth mentioning on this evening. Oh, the conductor – or perhaps his assistant – forgot to bring out the music sheets for the second half of the program, so Maestro Rubinstein pleasantly asked the audience to bear with him while he had the music brought out. Armin Shimerman started one of his lines just a little early and had to restart it again once the music hit the right point. And Kolk had his difficulties with his memory, but all-in-all the entire evening went quite nicely, and the orchestra under Arthur Rubinstein’s guidance gave a stirring performance.
I might recommend, however, that in the future it may be good to choose one or two less somber pieces, simply because I noticed certain youngsters commenting that some of the music sounded “depressing.” For instance, next season, try something like In the Hall of the Mountain King, from Edvard Grieg’s composition to Henrik Isben’s play, Peer Gynt. Although the full composition does include slower and more somber passages, this segment has the type of vivacity to which the children may better respond.
And while trying to keep performing rights in mind, it might be nice to see the dramatic reading change every year. I sensed that something like Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart was too subtle and sophisticated for younger listeners.
And one last observance. I noticed too that the children were not particularly interested in seeing only the orchestra and conductor on the theatre monitors. Though, as an adult I like to see this, I did feel that the kids would want to see some other imagery mixed in with shots of the symphony. Perhaps images relating to the meaning of the music may work nicely if such can be done in a cost effective and timely manner.
Now, since the festivities are designed around the young, there was more chatter than one would normally hear at a symphonic concert, but for the most part I found that I was able to concentrate on the music. Ironically, the loudest person in my neck of the woods was a father who was practically shouting when trying to explain things to his kids.
Something I didn’t quite expect was the reaction of the children to Disney’s Hell’s Bells. With all of the flash-and-dash in today’s CGI animated entertainment, I half expected them to be restless and unresponsive to this very early, black and white cartoon. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find the young audience members generally engaged and even asking questions when they didn’t quite understand certain imagery. It’s interesting to see what remains intrinsic to us as human beings, even amidst all of our technological advances.
All minor observances aside, the evening was, as mentioned, very delightful and Eek at the Greek! certainly deserves to become more widely known and more fully attended. I intend to return next year… and I don’t even have children.
So on this Halloween evening, go out and have a ball in the spirit of the holiday. But next year, remember that you and your whole family can very safely enjoy the season one week in advance at the Los Angeles Greek Theatre’s Annual Eek at the Greek! event.
For more information on events at the Los Angeles Greek Theatre please visit www.GreekTheatreLA.com. And to keep up with concert events of all sorts organized by Nederlander Concerts visit www.NederlanderConcerts.com.