It’s often suggested that a film is what’s on screen. Some critics staunchly propose today’s Hollywood has become too dependent on the score, that today’s scores are used to introduce drama that isn’t taking place on screen. For the realist, the tangential features are deemed garnishes, secondary and noncinematic.
That’s a bit of a silly hill to die on, isn’t it? Especially when Pixar films so eloquently use the language of music to complement their animation. Take the opening sequence of “Up,” a generation-defining touchstone. A man and a woman get married, love each other for decades, grow old; they promise to see the world together. But she dies, and he’s left to go on one last adventure on his own.
The music picks up, then slows. It washes in and out with the bumps in the couple’s story. It’s an entirely wordless sequence, noted Sarah Hicks, who conducted the San Francisco Syphony’s Pixar in Concert matinees July 23 and 24. Indeed, as the symphony played excerpts over montages of 15 Pixar films, it made the case for just how capable of a rudder — emotionally and cinematically — these scores are. By the end of the sequence, Davies Symphony Hall echoed with sniffles from children and adults alike.
The show, which spanned compositions from three Pixar regulars — cousins Randy and Thomas Newman, as well as Michael Giacchino — demonstrated that the power of a Pixar film comes in its no-frills approach to universal growing pains. The audience tapped its feet to excerpts from “Ratatouille”; someone let out an “aww” as the symphony worked through “WALL-E.” Any good Pixar film strikes a careful balance between expressing emotions that might be novel for its youngest audiences and nostalgic for its grown-up crowd. Toddlers ooh. Adults knowingly ahh.
Conducted by a conversational, welcoming Hicks, “Pixar in Concert” honed in on the same balance. Hicks — who isn’t a stranger to live renditions of Pixar works, having conducted “A Celebration of the Music from Coco” at the Hollywood Bowl — took breaks to introduce some of the selections to an audience that ran from 4-year-olds in navy blue suits to college students in “Coco” gear to leisurely retirees. Hicks’s work simultaneously recognized the relaxed air of the show and retained a degree of respect that verged on reverence.
Reverence isn’t far from what these films, and their scores, deserve. Pixar can lay claim to any number of cultural touchstones, but there’s one in “Inside Out” that exemplifies what made that film, and Pixar’s approach to it, so novel. In the film, a young girl named Riley is uprooted by her parents’ decision to move across the country.
As the film goes on, she recedes into herself until, in a pivotal scene, she comes to terms with her sadness. She breaks down in front of her parents. “Why is she crying?” a young boy in the audience wondered through tears of his own. “Because she’s sad,” one of his parents whispered, as a piano tapped through the hall and the strings swelled. With its candid portrayal of sadness, “Inside Out” in many ways imprinted itself on the minds of a generation with its frankness, a light-footed dexterity that “Pixar in Concert” replicated.
It’s perhaps easy to forget that, because of how direct-to-the-soul these scores are, they’re the work of teams of artists. Thomas Newman, who composed the scores for “WALL-E,” “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory,” made a perplexing note in the score for “Finding Dory.” The solo violinist is to “play like a whale.” It is not clear what this means, Hicks reported to the audience. How does one play like a whale? Should the violin swoon? Search for serenity?
It was fitting that imagination complicated “Pixar in Concert” just a bit, reminding its audience of the craft on display in Davies Symphony Hall.