On Saturday, October 25, Arthur Rubinstein and the Symphony in the Glen delivered stirring performances of sinister symphonic music and an emphatic rendition of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart,” read by Bruce Boxleitner, backed by Rubinstein’s original music, scored to enhance the story. Although an evening of baton waving might seem like a rather high-toned way to spend Halloween in Los Angeles, Eek at the Greek turned out to be a family-friendly event, designed to engender an interest in classical music among young listeners. There was also a Trick or Treat village outside the Greek Theatre, and a costume contest that concluded on stage during intermission.
The overall atmosphere was festive and fun (many members of the orchestra were in costume), without diluting the quality of the musical performances, which were strong enough to engage the ear of any discerning music lover, young or old.
The tone of the concert was set by the opening piece, “Infernal Dance of King Kaschel” from Stravinsky’s The Firebird. The music was sharp, rhythmic, and intense; punctuated by sudden blasts of volume, it was the perfect attention-grabber, guaranteed to appeal to an audience that was probably not particularly knowledgeable on the subject of classical music.
Rubinstein followed up with an enchanting rendition of Danse Macabre by Camilee Saint-Seans, which the conductor identified as the first piece of music to depict the revels of resurrected spirits. The appeal of this music is obvious: to our modern ears it sounds like an excerpt from a Danny Elfman film score – magical and ethereal, with just a touch of menace.
Next up was a a world premiere: a live rendition of Carl Stalling’s soundtrack music for Disney’s black-and-white animated short, The Skeleton Dance. Reconstructed by Alexander Rannie (apparently the original score no longer exists), Stalling’s music was performed with a clarity and vivacity far exceeding the audio track of the 1929 film (which screened on monitors to the sides of the stage). Part of the fun of the piece is that the music really is the soundtrack; there are no sound effects or dialogue, so the score must convey every gust of wind, hoot of an owl, and caterwaul of a feline. And of course, when a skeleton borrows two leg bones and knocks them on the rib cage of a companion, what sound should emerge from the orchestra but that of xylophones. This was light-hearted Halloween fun at its best.
The first half of the evening’s program concluded with Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain (listed as “Night on Bare Mountain” in the program – a translation we will never accept; fortunately, Rubinstein used our preferred title when introducing the piece). Millions of listeners know this piece from its appearance in the final segment of Disney’s Fantasia, for which Leopold Stokowski orchestrated his own version; Rubinstein performed the more frequently recorded – and somewhat wilder – Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration.* Night on Bald Mountain is one of the most accessible pieces of creepy classical music – by turns eerie and overpowering – and under Rubinstein’s baton, the notes emanating from the Symphony in the Glen filled the night air with phantoms and built to a rousing climax before breaking for intermission.
During the break, Doug Kolk – entertainment reporter for KTLA – hosted the conclusion of Eek at the Greek’s costume contest. Finalists in several age groups (all of them children) had been selected earlier in the evening, in the Trick or Treat Village before the musical program began. All the costumes were amazing; the winning edge went to those who could perform well enough to earn the audience applause that determined the outcome, such the Elvis Impersonator who intoned “Thank you very much” and the young Wolverine waving his claws like a maniac. Unfortunately, Kolk seemed a bit clueless about some of the costumes. We cannot blame him for failing to identify The Slenderman (an internet meme rather than a movie monster), but he didn’t recognize Godzilla! Even after the wearer identified himself as the radioactive reptile, Kolk said, “So, a combination of a T-Rex and an alien?”
The music resumed with Funeral March of the Marionette (popularly known as the theme from The Alfred Hitchock Show). This performance was designed to give a quartet of young winners an opportunity to conduct an orchestra before a live audience, but events did not go quite as planned. After no one appeared in response to Rubinstein’s repeated calls for his guest conductors, audience members mistook him to be asking for volunteers, resulting in a flood of would-be baton twirlers jumping on the stage. Adroitly salvaging the situation, Rubinstein eventually found his previously selected conductors, got the orchestra started, and handed off the baton to each of the four in turn, before finishing up with all of the unexpected volunteers “conducting” in synch with him. With its steady rhythm and moderate tempo, Charles Gounod’s piece was ideal for inexperienced conductors, and of course the whimsically macabre tone was perfect for the Halloween season.
Mussorgsky made another appearance on the program with “Gnomes.” This is not our favorite piece from Pictures at an Exhibition – we would have preferred the more frenetic “Hut of Baba Yaga” (a.k.a. “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs”); nevertheless, the dramatic tones and brooding tempo provided an interesting contrast to devilish revelries of the program’s first half.
The next piece was not not seasonal in nature, serving rather as a prelude to what followed. Rubinstein conducted his own theme music from The Scarecrow and Mrs. King, the 1980s television series starring Bruce Boxleitner. Not coincidentally, Boxleitner appeared on stage to assist with a performance of The Tell-Tale Heart, reading Poe’s text while the orchestra performed Rubinstein’s musical accompaniment. There was a small snafu at the beginning when Boxleitner sat down, looked at his music stand, and remarked that he would have to ad lib because his script was missing. Fortunately, the purloined manuscript was found, and the performance proceeded apace.
At first, Boxleitner seemed slightly miscast as Poe’s homicidal narrator. He’s a good actor with several genre credits, but in science fiction (Tron, Babylon 5) rather than horror. However, the fairly moderate tone of his opening delivery left ample space for him to build to a gradually intensifying crescendo over the course of the next few minutes, working himself into a fine state of agitation by the time he shouted the famous closing lines: “Villains! [… ] dissemble no more! I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! here, here! – It is the beating of his hideous heart!” After finishing, the quite breathless actor gasped to Rubinstein, “That was murder!”
Rubinstein’s orchestral accompaniment avoided the musical impressionism of The Skeleton Dance – no wooden percussion to represent tearing planks, though the rhythms did suggest a beating heartbeat. Instead the music provided a dramatic backdrop to support the vocal performance, with Rubinstein subtly indicating when Boxleitner should pause to stay in synch with the score.
The music also helped overcome the handicap of reading the story aloud: Poe was the master of the abrupt conclusion, leaving readers to ponder the implications after finishing the story’s final line. What works on the page is less satisfying in a dramatic setting, where the audience is primed to expect some sort of post-climactic “Falling Action” and/or “Resolution,” the absence of which leaves a sense of something missing. That vacuum was filled by Rubinstein’s score, which helped bring the high-strung emotions of the text to a satisfying rest.
The Tell-Tale Heart provided the horrifying highlight of an evening’s worth of Halloween entertainment. After that, the program concluded with a jauntier piece, “Devil’s Dance” from John Williams’ score for The Witches of Eastwick. At just over four minutes in length, this slightly manic scherzo provided an energetically enjoyable conclusion that raised our collective spirits after the preceding downbeat drama, sending us out into the cool October night with a satisfied glow in our hearts.
This Halloween’s Eek at the Greek offered an inspired selection of short orchestral works that were easy to enjoy, regardless of one’s lack of expertise in the field of symphonic music. Though Hollywood Gothique is far from an expert in the field, several of the evening’s selections are in our CD collection, and if anything, the live renditions exceeded the embalmed perfection of the recorded form.
Not only were the orchestral performances pitch-perfect under Rubinstein’s baton; the Greek theatre also provided stunning sound clarity, with each decorative touch – the trill of a violin, the snap of percussion, the ring of a bell – slicing through the night air and directly into our eardrums.
Though the focus is clearly on younger listeners, Eek at the Greek should appeal to anyone with an interest in macabre music. Pre-show announcements advised parents to remove restless children to lobby area, where they could continue to watch the show on monitors. Though the crowd of children and parents were talkative during intermission, they did quiet down during the music, and we noted few if any distractions worth noting.
Our only complaint is that the Halloween 2014 concert was criminally under-attended. Now in its fourth season at the Greek Theatre, hopefully with a fifth to follow, Eek at the Greek is one of the most novel Halloween events in Los Angeles, one that could appeal to a much wider audience if given a chance, including adults without children. Keep your eye of newt out for this one next October.
- Mussorgy’s original music exists in three different versions, only the last of which was performed during his lifetime. After Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov orchestrated the version that became a standard part of the concert repertoire, inspiring Stokowsky’s version.