Only four composers have written scores for the 14 feature films produced by Pixar Animation Studios. Randy Newman, Michael Giacchino, Thomas Newman, and Patrick Doyle have each left their mark on a Pixar flick — and collectively won 10 Grammy Awards and three Academy Awards and earned another 10 Academy nominations for the films' music.
And like their films, each score is distinct and memorable. Randy Newman's composition for "Monsters, Inc." incorporates big band-inspired pieces — sometimes with a hint of oddity — that fits with daily city life in the busy Monstropolis. Giacchino captured the mystery and romance of Paris for his score to "Ratatouille," with songs reflecting a relaxed European culture above ground and the fast-paced "rat race" life of its small protagonist in the sewers. And by including several jazz numbers, Giacchino makes "Ratatouille's" music feel more intimate than many of its fellow Pixar scores.
On Saturday, July 12, the Rochester Philharmonic will present Pixar in Concert, a performance of the scores with accompanying visual clips from each of Pixar's 14 feature films.
"They're so different; they're so fascinating," says Daniel Meyer, who will guest conduct Pixar in Concert. Meyer is the music director for the Erie Philharmonic — which performed Pixar in Concert in March — and is director of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra.
"'WALL-E's' score is very much electronically influenced," Meyer said in an interview last week, "and almost sounds like synthesizers the way [Thomas Newman] uses the instruments in the orchestra. You get these big, pompous, super-hero scores with 'The Incredibles.' It runs the gamut in terms of styles. It's all well-orchestrated, and the music comes alive."
The concert is presented in medley form, with seven or eight minutes dedicated to each film. As the orchestra performs the score live, video excerpts from the corresponding film will be projected onto a screen on stage, with any non-orchestral elements, like original dialogue or sound effects, kept intact.
The intent is to give an immersive experience to the orchestration behind the Pixar films.
"These are very complicated scores," Meyer said, "and they're taxing from a technical standpoint: brass players playing at full-tilt and strings playing really fast 16th notes and really complicated configurations. The woodwinds are getting some really interesting configurations. Just the sheer challenge of the score itself is one issue, but the other issue, then, of course, is we have to very precisely coordinate what we do to the film."
To help keep the orchestra on track with the film projection, Meyer uses a click track designed to line up the tempo of the music with the film.
"Essentially what you're watching is a Hollywood studio orchestra kind of coming alive in front of your eyes," he said. As a musician and conductor, Meyer said, this can be somewhat "maddening," since there isn't much room allowed for interpretation.
"We have to stick with the heartbeat that's provided by the films themselves," Meyer said. "It's crucial that these musical moments line up perfectly with the film."
Still, he said he enjoys the Pixar in Concert program because of the connection audiences have with the material.
"To look out into the hall and see parents sitting with children, grandparents sitting with grandchildren, people coming to hear the Rochester Philharmonic for the very first time in their lives and experiencing something so dramatic and so beautiful: it's a powerful experience for the musicians and for me as a conductor," Meyer said. "That's the biggest payoff."
Pixar in Concert is the latest in RPO performances that have incorporated a video element. In February, the RPO performed "Singin' in the Rain" in much the same way, with the orchestration pulled out to be performed live, while original dialogue and sound effects are kept. Before that, the RPO presented "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" in July 2012, and "Fantasia" in November 2013.
"It creates a fascinating experience," said Richard Decker, RPO vice president of artistic operations. "I really noticed during 'Fantasia' and 'Singin' in the Rain,' I was watching a really great movie but suddenly had the ultimate set of speakers."
Decker said these film performances are part of his hope to interject more video elements into the RPO's programming. He's passionate about classical music and sees the use of video as a way to capture a diverse audience's attention in a media-soaked society.
"It's something that we really feel is a trans-generational kind of product," Decker said. "There's been a lot of talk in the industry that we need to bring in younger audiences, things like that. I would like to change the conversation a little bit. What I would like to bring in are multi-generational audiences. We're getting more people engaged in the Rochester Philharmonic."
Orchestras across the country are beginning to embrace these live film projects — due in part to the quality of the scores. In the late 1970's, John Williams and other conductors re-embraced the orchestra — whose importance was significant in the silent film era — and its potential when creating music for films. Since, film scores have grown to be an essential part of storytelling, rather than just relegated to the background.
The Pixar scores are "very well written and challenging scores for the orchestra to play," Decker said. "That in itself is really rewarding to the orchestra. To be able to have a very confident conductor, to take this good music and put it all together and line it up with the video elements on the screen, it creates a real sense of pride and accomplishment. They can see the reaction of the audience. And they can see a lot of new faces, or a lot of families in this particular concert. That's exactly what we want to see in Rochester."
Check below for a Spotify playlist of selections from the Pixar scores.
Pianist Yuja Wang on Thursday and Saturday broke into Bartok and helped the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra reach new heights.