This post is from NSO@Wolf Trap Festival Conductor Emil de Cou.
In one of the great acceptance speech zingers of all time, the legendary Meryl Streep famously said, "There are some days when even I think I'm overrated, but not today." The award in hand was an Emmy for her performance in the television adaptation of Angels in America, in which she played not one, but four roles to perfection: a mother, a rabbi, an anarchist, and an angel.
Though I lay no claim to her talent, I can relate to her wry immodesty. Many is the time that I read my bio or hear applause and I think, well, thank you very much, but really it's a bit much.
But not tonight.
I have been a professional conductor for my entire adult life and have had the privilege of leading major orchestras in major works, from classics of the baroque era to opera to contemporary works of great complexity. But rarely do I get the mental and physical workout the likes of which I get when I conduct a live performance of The Wizard of Oz. Since the NSO and I premiered the symphony 'n' screen adaptation at Wolf Trap in 2005, I have performed it several times here and with other orchestras. Despite the fact that the score has been seared into my brain from early childhood, each time I conduct this score I feel like I'm being sucked up into a black and white vortex and dropped down in a color fantasy, only to be shipped back to sepia reality. It's an emotional journey worthy of Bruckner, except much, much more complicated.
When you conduct Bruckner you don't have to deal with witches (good ones and bad ones from every point on the compass), Munchkins (who sings in the strangest keys), flying monkeys, talking vegetation, and a lost little girl who pauses to sing with her friends now and then. What sounds seamless to the audience is, in live performance, a bazillion little calculations by me and 100 musicians who have to adapt at the flick of the wrist. No matter how many times we perform The Wizard of Oz - same score, same film, same orchestra, same me - the Tin Man always dances off the beat, the monkeys tear up the Scarecrow ahead of their cue, and Dorothy's heels click in a tempo that has little to do with whatever else is going on.
I can't really blame Harold Arlen, who wrote the songs, nor can I scold Herbert Stothart, who scored the instrumental sections, nor the half a dozen or so other members of the musical staff, many of who remain uncredited. The fact is that a film score is a collaboration among artists and art forms and The Wizard of Oz was created, masterfully so, before the technology existed to sync sound and scene to the microsecond as we do now. Any attempt to recreate it in a live environment lends even more room for error.
But of course the potential for error is part of what makes live performance all the more fun. Fortunately the 100 artists who are members of the National Symphony Orchestra make me look good. At least today.
Take a journey to Oz like you never have before, with the complete 1939 classic shown on HUGE screens in-house and on the lawn and the full score played live by the NSO tonight, Saturday, July 14, at 8:30 pm.