This Is Halloween, This Is Classical Music: SCSO Presents The Nightmare Before Christmas

Sioux City Symphony Orchestra
Orpheum Theatre
Sioux City, Iowa
October 19, 2019. 7:30.

Tonight, in front of a sell-out crowd that included a lot of kids and first-time symphony-goers, the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra performed the live score to the film The Nightmare Before Christmas.  Toward the middle of the movie, two characters discuss the upcoming Christmas holiday—their very first.  “Time to give them something fun,” they say, that “they’ll talk about for years to come.”  I imagine everyone who experienced their first symphony concert tonight will be talking about it for quite some time. 

In choosing Nightmare, Music Director Ryan Haskins could have been setting up both the orchestra and the audience for their own bad dreams.  This isn’t just a film, after all; it’s a musical.  And while last year’s film choice included that great John Williams score so many of us are familiar with, Star Wars lets its orchestra off the hook for whole minutes at a time.  Nightmare offers no such luxury.  By my estimation, it was a good twenty minutes before the orchestra got its first break, which lasted less than a minute.  Then it was off to the races again. 

In the opening number, “This Is Halloween,” the townspeople exhort, “Everybody’s waiting for the next surprise.”  That may be true of everyone in Halloween Town and everyone in the audience.  In fact, the whole film was a surprise for me; I’d never seen it before.  But Maestro Haskins admitted in Friday’s Lunch and Learn talk that he couldn’t look forward to the organic surprises a performance normally brings the way he usually might, because when the orchestra has to keep up with action and singing for such brutal stretches of time, there’s simply no room for those little surprises.  Well, if execution was what Haskins and the orchestra were after, then they killed it.  They stayed on top of this relentless score the whole way through.  That’s no mean feat, because this isn’t mere background music we’re talking about.  The score to Nightmare is part of the fabric of the film. 

Now, there might be some symphony-goers out there who think the orchestra has no place performing film scores at all, or if they do, they needn’t be performing scores to films like this one (whatever that means).  But Haskins has explained of Danny Elfman’s bold and enigmatic score, “This is classical music.”  It’s certainly less predictable than a work by a more classically-trained composer.  But it’s hard to imagine that a stop-motion animated film about ghouls and goblins putting their own fiendish stamp on Christmas would be any fun if it were predictable. 

I’ll admit, I might choose a program like September’s “Arabian Nights” or March’s “Beethoven’s Seventh” over movie night.  Those programs offer the listener an opportunity to go inside and reflect not only on the music but on their own experience.  That’s a kind of interiority I find invaluable.  But if you’re after a night of outward spectacle, of sight and sound, a night of entertainment, it’s hard to imagine one better.  And as a way to introduce young people to live music—which was clearly a theme of tonight and tomorrow’s festivities—the audience reaction was resounding: the night was no nightmare at all.

Brendan Todt is a stay-at-home father who mows his neighbor’s lawn in exchange for piano lessons. He curates Art Hub Siouxland and is the host of Take Whatever Beauty You Can Find, a podcast that talks to Siouxland artists about Siouxland art.