He may be best known for his film scores (“Batman,” “Spider-Man,” “Men in Black”), TV theme songs (“The Simpsons”) and his irreverent rock songs with Oingo Boingo from the 1980s-90s.
But Danny Elfman also wants to make a name for himself as a classical music composer. He has composed a violin concerto for provocative Dutch violinist Sandy Cameron, and his newest Percussion Concerto is making its North American premiere Sunday at Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo. Accomplished British percussionist Colin Currie will take center stage; he will be accompanied by the Pacific Symphony Chamber Orchestra, led by music director Carl St.Clair.
The Percussion Concerto – co-commissioned by Soka University and the London Philharmonic – made its world premiere March 25 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and was performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In Orange County, it will be performed in the 1,032-seat concert hall on the bucolic Soka University of America campus, with acoustics designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, who also designed the acoustics for Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Musco Center for the Arts at Chapman University.
“I needed to do this, for my own head space,” Elfman said in an interview this week. “I love doing film. But I needed the release of being able to write totally free, without any limitations of what I can do. Pushing myself way out of my comfort zone, which is what I need to do to survive.”
The concerto is comprised of four movements. The first involves two other percussionists, forming a triangle with Currie. The second movement is inspired by the music and compositional patterns of Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich. The third movement is “the most intimate, and harmonically the most adventurous,” with possible influence from Arnold Schoenberg, according to Currie in a YouTube video. And the final movement is “a humdinger of a finale,” Currie says in the video. “It’s fast, it’s exciting, it’s fireworks, and it’s a roof raiser,” Currie says.
The Percussion Concerto involves vibraphones, the marimba and West African-inspired instrumentation.
“Percussion has always been an important part of my life,” Elfman said in a statement. “Beginning in my travels through West Africa when I was only 18 years old, when I began collecting and learning to play ‘balafons,’ through my years of playing in metal-based Indonesian Gamelan ensembles in my 20s, as well as building my own strange metal and wood percussion ensembles in my early theatrical performance years, it has always been a lifelong obsession.”
An Auspicious Encounter
Elfman and Currie met during a film scoring session in London. “We talked. We clicked. We just kind of hit it off,” Currie said during a recent Zoom interview. “He brought a lot of recordings. Then we stayed very closely in touch. We had a lot of FaceTimes and Zooms over the internet. We discussed how (Elfman’s composition) could translate into an orchestra or not. There were some lovely collaborations.”
Currie, who lives in Glasgow, Scotland, is a celebrated solo percussionist who has performed with many orchestras around the world. He has a strong association with the London Philharmonic, and has had 35 concertos written especially for him to date, he said. He also has his own group, the Colin Currie Quartet. Esteemed American composer Steve Reich has called him “one of the greatest musicians in the world today.”
Currie has performed this Elfman piece live once, and will do so once again this weekend in Aliso Viejo. He says he can definitely hear the West African and Indonesian influences.
“In the harmonies you can hear Gamelan influence for sure,” he said. “It’s also in the way the bass lines move. The kind of tensions that emerge absolutely could be directly from Gamelan (ensembles). There’s also the African and West African type of approach.”
Elfman demurs from commenting on specific influences in his latest Percussion Concerto, but he does want it to be accessible to Western orchestras and audiences.
“My goal was to write concert music that any orchestra could play, that wasn’t restricted by needing electronic samples or exotic instruments,” he said. “What I have wanted for all three of (the concertos) was to write for a real orchestra and find a way to get what I want through what they have.”
Elfman said he did take notes during the London world premiere, and he did make “a few orchestration changes.”
“I made some corrections. It’s basically going to be the same show. Pacific Symphony is wonderful. It’s a difficult piece. I’m quite sure they’re up for the task. They’re really good.”
Composed by Danny Elfman, featuring Colin Currie
Where: Soka Performing Arts Center, 1 University Drive, Aliso Viejo
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, April 24
Tickets: $49-$129; $40-$105 for seniors, students and military
Information: (949) 480-4278 or soka.edu/performing-arts-center
Elfman said he didn’t know exactly what to expect acoustically at Soka Performing Arts Center, but he said it’s going to be “very interesting trying to keep an orchestra in control, then trying to encourage an orchestra to play much more forcefully with this barrage of percussion that Colin is banging away at.
“Colin is really up to the task, and wonderful. I definitely wrote him a very hard piece. I thought he would meet up to the demands (in London). And he did, and he will be up to the demands.
“I really felt like it’s such a structured piece. It’s so beyond what I’ve done before. It was also the most exhilarating to compose. I need to do this, and I need to do this every year.”
Currie said he really enjoyed working with Elfman on this concerto. “Danny is wildly creative. It just pours out of him, like a geyser. He’s a lot of fun to be around. It’s just thrilling to be close to someone with so much going on. He’s like a present-day Mozart. It’s a particularly apposite analogy.”
Fresh from Coachella
If you’re familiar with the behemoth known as the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, you may have heard that Elfman performed there on Saturday night, April 16, and will perform there again this Saturday night, April 23.
He appeared onstage with a 50-piece orchestra and a large and colorful video presentation. It was his first non-Oingo Boingo solo performance since 1995, he said. During his show, the wind kicked up so fiercely, he could not hear his own sound.
“It was a really, really wild experience,” he said. “It’s hard to even describe. I haven’t fully processed this yet. It’s a crazy concept; it’s so difficult to make it all happen.”
According to Elfman, the wind “almost completely annihilated my mix, the mix I’ve been trying to work on for days. It was like performing at the seashore on a stormy day next to crashing waves.
“It was pretty startling. There was nothing I could do. At one point after a few songs, I said, ‘I’m just going to enjoy this, and hope the audience isn’t hearing what I hear.’ You just let go, you soldier through it. I’m just going to enjoy this, do my best, and push past the handicap. I really tossed in everything, including my shirt. I’m just going to enjoy this, for better and for worse.”
Elfman and his orchestra performed several Oingo Boingo songs, a few tracks from his latest album, “Big Mess,” released in June 2021, and “seven big pieces of film scoring.”
“It was this crazy experiment of – can you put Oingo Boingo next to ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Batman’ next to ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’? I pitched it to Paul (Tollett), the producer who put Coachella together. He was excited by the visual possibilities. Let’s take all these elements and smash them together. He said, ‘Sure man, go for it.’”
Danny Elfman was born in 1953 in Los Angeles, where he was also raised. He still lives in L.A. on the East Side, just “a few miles from where I grew up.”
Anyone in Southern California who listened to KROQ (106.7 FM) and followed the ‘80s New Wave scene knows Oingo Boingo, whose songs include “Only a Lad,” “Private Life,” “Dead Man’s Party,” “Just Another Day” and “Weird Science.”
So Elfman must have Orange County connections, no?
“Oh my God, yeah,” he said. “There was a point where we had the record for the most performances at the Pacific Amphitheatre – or was it the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre? I’m really bad when it comes to my own history.”
Needless to say, he has performed in O.C. dozens and dozens of times.
He also wrote a ballet composition for Twyla Tharp (“Rabbit and Rogue”) that was performed in 2008 by Pacific Symphony. It was co-commissioned by the Orange County Performing Arts Center (now Segerstrom Center for the Arts) and American Ballet Theatre and made its world premiere June 3, 2008 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center.
So after all these years, does he think Oingo Boingo will ever get back together again?
“I hate to disappoint Oingo Boingo fans, but I’m not a big reunion guy overall,” he said. “I tend to be – when something goes through its lifespan and once it’s buried, it’s dead. I don’t want to try to resuscitate. I don’t mind playing Oingo Boingo songs during Coachella, but I wouldn’t want to do that for two hours.”
Oh well, guess there won’t be a Boingo reunion tour after all.
Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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