News Column

Pop culture goes classical

September 28, 2013


Sept. 28--Brilliant Beginnings" not only launches the new season for the Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra, it also tells you exactly what's on the program: overtures.

These showy beginnings make big but brief statements about the music that follows. Many are also designed to highlight the skills of the instrumentalists who will be toiling away in the orchestra pit.

So this concert, with its technically challenging music, is a chance for the symphony to take the spotlight all evening long instead of the usual guest soloist, conductor William Intriligator said.

So the overture is kind of like the elevator pitch for a bigger work. It sets the mood and sells the audience on the idea that a great evening lies ahead.

But sometimes composers have pulled off this feat almost too well. They have stated their intentions so clearly and created vivid, unmistakable images through orchestral music.

In some cases, their big themes have found their way into pop culture. Sure, these were probably dispatched because studios were probably trying to save time and money. However it happened, music and a certain meaning have been branded into our brains.

Think of the Lone Ranger: That triumphant theme was cribbed from Rossini's "William Tell" Overture.

And there's Tchaikovsky's "Romero and Juliet Overture-Fantasy." A passage that makes a big, romantic statement is now so often used in films and TV to tell us: "This guy is deluded."

Musicians and classical music aficionados aren't always happy with this. Great music reduced to efficient little movers and shakers of plot lines, splashing around buckets of laughs can cheapen the music, abbreviate the art.


But if these familiar themes become gateways to an appreciation for classical music, not all is lost, even if the cartoony associations never quite leave us.

If you never have spent an evening at the symphony hall, this is a great concert to begin your journey. Come early for the pre-concert talk and stay to hear what lies beneath the surface of these brilliant themes.


Composer: Leonard Bernstein, 1956

Where have you heard this: If you joined the school band and stuck with it, chances are you played this. It's "a fun, light piece that just sparkles," Intriligator


Where it really comes from: This goes with an operetta based on a novella by Voltaire. It's a tale of a lad who sets out into the world to prove himself worthy of the love of a baron's daughter. In the overture, songs from "Candide" are quoted throughout: "Glitter and Be Gay," "Best of All Possible Words."


Composer: Johann Strauss Jr., 1874

Where have you heard this: You probably know "The Blue Danube Waltz." Even if you know nothing of "Fledermaus," it should sound familiar. Cartoon buffs may recognize it from an episode of "Tom and Jerry" in which Tom conducts an orchestra of cats at Hollywood Bowl. Jerry soon emerges from a mouse hole and tries to take over. Of course, Tom fights Jerry, Jerry refuses to back off, and Tom's big night ends in a ruin.

Where it really comes from: It starts an operetta called "Die Fledermaus" (Translation: "The Bat.") In this light comedy, all kinds of zany plotlines converge and collide at a ball -- including that of a man playing hooky from prison. The overture, with its light-hearted mood, conjures gilded ballrooms packed with gliding waltzers.


Composer: Johannes Brahms, 1880

Where have you heard this: So its melodies, borrowed from drinking songs favored by 19th-century German college boys, are probably unfamiliar to you. (So rest easy, you aren't that old, no matter what your kids say.) Brahms also borrowed the theme "Gaudeamus igitur" for its final melody. Many others have quoted this theme as well, including composer Randy Newman, who used in his score for Pixar's "Monsters University"; it is heard as the characters chase a pig.

Where it really comes from: According to Intriligator, Brahms was granted an honorary degree, so he dashed off some music to mark the occasion, weaving in "scholarly" melodies that would have been familiar to the students and faculty. For the piece's big finish, Brahms fittingly uses commencement music of the day, "Gaudeamus igitur." (Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" was about 21 years in the future.) So, yes, this is not an overture -- Brahms just called it one, probably because it was brief and showy.



Composer: Gioacchino Rossini, 1829

Where have you heard it: Do we have to say it? "The Lone Ranger," of course. But this piece actually has four parts and just about everything in it has been pillaged and parceled out to various cartoon characters. The calm, pastoral section is often used in sunrise scenes -- a calm to contrast with the coming chaos. And the storm movement is the height of the action in "The Band Concert," where Mickey Mouse and his band refuse to let a twister interrupt their outdoor concert. (And if you're a musician, their perseverance is actually somewhat moving.)

Where it really comes from: In this overture to an opera about a Swiss hero who saves the land from Austrian oppression, Rossini paints a musical portrait of the Swiss Alps. And it actually stands alone nicely as a vivid miniature symphony. It starts with a mournful cello quintet and then goes on to a serene pastoral theme. A brief violent storm is followed by the galloping finale of the Swiss Army riding in.


Composer: Jacques Offenbach, 1858

Where have you heard this: You will know the catchy, up-tempo cancan dance. You know, the high-kicking chorus line of French women showing off their petticoats and black stockings. Offenbach's theme has become shorthand for: "Look at me, love me, take me: I'm fabulous!" (Think "Moulin Rouge!") It has been featured in countless cartoons, including Bugs Bunny, who dresses in drag to beguile and then humiliate Elmer Fudd.

And Homer Simpson humming the theme as he fantasizes

about his perfect, dancing pecs is unforgettable.

Where it really comes from: As most overtures, this one gives the audience a taste of the music to come in this brief comic opera whose storyline is based on Greek mythology. And if you want to sound smart, the proper title of the music for the cancan dance is actually "Infernal Galop."


Composer: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1880 (third and final version)

Where have you heard this: In one part, the strings build to big, sweet, emotional, operatic heights. Perhaps because it is so over-the-top and unabashed, it is often used for comic effect. For instance, in "A Christmas Story" the love theme emphasizes the silliness of Ralph's daydream: Teacher Miss Shields reads his essay about the BB gun he so desires and she responds with rapture.

Where it really comes from: Though it has a clear intro, this is not overture to a larger work. This symphonic poem uses music to let the tale of the "star-cross'd lovers" unfold in 20 minutes.


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