I love visiting Paris, and in my memory the city has a lovely soft-focus luminosity that is beautifully captured in Disney/Pixar's 2007 animated comedy "Ratatouille," the concert version of which got its North American premiere last weekend at Powell Hall with the St. Louis Symphony and guest artists under the baton of Sarah Hicks.
In this colorful vision of the City of Light, even the sewers look clean as Remy, the rat with the nose and talent of a master chef, crawls upward to save the failing restaurant of the late Chef Gusteau from the twin threats of vicious food critic Anton Ego and conniving chef Skinner, who is using Gusteau's name to sell fast food. "Ratatouille" is, make no mistake, that rarest of birds: an animated feel-good comedy that can entertain multiple generations. As Diane Carson wrote in her KDHX review of the commercial release in the summer of 2007, "'Ratatouille' takes time to love Paris and its characters; to celebrate life, even if it is a rat's; and to reward the good and redeem the bad. Pixar adores friendship, supportive communities, living your dreams, leaping hurdles, and facing down danger. With 'Ratatouille' they again prove it doesn't matter if it's a rat or a fish, a car or a rubber superhero, it really is the sentiment and the message that ensures our enjoyment."
But enough about the film; this is a music review, after all, so let's talk about Michael Giacchino's whimsical and consistently imaginative music. Scored for a full late-Romantic orchestra with an expanded sax section, accordion, and an array of guitars and related instruments that kept guest artist Steve Shenkel very busy, the music of "Ratatouille" sounded, most of the time, remarkably (and appropriately) small in scale.
Yes, the full band is used for most of the chase sequences, but even these have interesting little touches, like the scurrying flute line that accompanies Remy up from the Paris sewers. A classic "big band" brass-and-sax sound accompanies the rat reunion party at one point, and the charm of Parisian night life is evoked by both the accordion and the jazzy passages that call to mind guitar legend Django Reinhardt and his famed Quintette du Hot Club de France.
All this meant that Ms. Hicks, a Curtis Institute Staff Conductor who does pops and special presentations concerts for the Minnesota Orchestra, had to be both versatile and versed in a variety of different musical styles. Conducting a live score to accompany a film is, as I have noted earlier, a very specialized skill, and Ms. Hicks certainly appears to have mastered it. She kept all the disparate elements of Mr. Giacchino's score working harmoniously together and perfectly in synch with the film.
The high-def print of "Ratatouille" looked great on the big screen at Powell Hall, and I was pleased to see that subtitles for the hearing impaired have been added. My ears are fine, thanks, but even I sometimes have trouble catching film dialog at Powell when the orchestra is playing full tilt. I hope this is a preview of things to come.
The SLSO has had quite a public affair lately with movies and movie music. Granted, it's a match born out of financial necessity more than love, as these programs nearly always sell out and are probably quite profitable. But if they attract audiences who have never experienced the heady cocktail of a live orchestral performance then I, for one, am all for it. Now if only first-time concertgoers could get it through their heads that you don't walk out during the curtain calls we'd all be happy.
Next at Powell Hall: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson presents Olivier Messaien's "From the Canyons to the Stars" on Saturday, January 16, at 8 PM. The performance features piano soloist Peter Henderson and video artist Deborah O'Grady. For more information: stlsymphony.org.