South Bend Symphony performs Farkle McBride from Lithgow to Notre Dame
Alastair Willis can identify with Farkle McBride.
The musical director of the South Bend Symphony Orchestra, like the protagonist of “The Remarkable Farkle McBride,” switched from one instrument to another as a child.
“I wanted to try everything,” says Willis. “I didn’t know then that I was going to become a conductor. It took me many years, in my twenties, to choose conducting.
Farkle’s story caps the March 6 SBSO family concert at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame.
As with the concert finale, the remainder of the hour-long program features works that highlight different aspects of the orchestra so that, taken together, the audience is introduced to the four sections of an orchestra: strings, winds, brass and percussion.
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Along with the orchestra’s youth concerts for school children, Willis says, these types of concerts are “probably the most important concerts we do” because of their reach with children.
“Each section has a piece that introduces them, and then it all comes with ‘The Remarkable Farkle McBride’ story,” he says. “It’s the perfect introduction to the orchestra.”
The first five works on the program are popular short pieces that have all been used in film and television productions, although Dmitri Kabalevsky’s aptly named “Galop” from the sequel “The Comedians” may not be as familiar. Than The Other Four: Centered Work served as the theme song for the game show “Masquerade Party” in the 1950s and on its one-season revival in the 1970s.
The concert opens, however, with one of the most famous uses of classical music as a film or television theme: the finale of Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture.
“I grew up hearing that and thinking it was the theme for ‘Lone Ranger’ and I had no idea it was by an Italian composer,” Willis says. “Anyone will recognize it, but hearing and seeing it played by an orchestra as opposed to a masked man on a white horse is a completely different experience.”
The overture finale, which also features prominently in the film adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange”, opens with a thrilling trumpet theme that announces the action to come, then introduces the entire orchestra.
“It may be important to know the true source of a work of art,” says Willis. “But seeing the strings playing and seeing the intensity of the trumpeters is different. Seeing these 60 people make these incredible sounds is an educational and fascinating moment.
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The string section – particularly the violin – then takes center stage, with the first movement of the “Spring” concerto from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”. According to IMDb, the “Spring” move has appeared in such films as “A View to a Kill,” “Pretty Woman,” “Up Close and Personal,” “Spy Game,” and “Tropic Thunder.”
The “most virtuoso bumblebee in the history of music”, as Willis calls him, follows with “Flight of the Bumblebee” from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “Tale of the Tsar Saltan”.
Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Gold Rush’, Disney’s ‘Fantasia’, the radio and television series ‘The Green Hornet’ and ‘Kill Bill’ have all made use of it.
It’s “devilishly virtuosic, a chance for the orchestra to really shine,” says Willis. “It’s a demo piece, if you will.”
The brass section takes center stage for Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” a piece Copland wrote at the request of Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, as one of 18 brass bands he commanded in 1942 to support the war effort, something he had done in Britain during World War I.
“It’s an iconic American marching band,” Willis says, “tied to patriotism.”
In May 2014, for example, the New York Philharmonic performed it at the grand opening of the 9/11 Museum in Manhattan. It was also used by the Chicago Blackhawks in their video presentation of the team, and John Williams based the main themes of 1978’s “Superman” on it.
But one of its most famous uses came when British progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer reached number two on the UK Singles Chart in 1977 with a version that Copland praised in an interview just before. his death.
“I think Copland’s fanfare vibe, when I hear it, I feel a sense of power and I feel the majesty of the musical phrase,” Willis says of the traditional orchestral version. “It was written for everyone. It was supposed to elevate, boost morale. That’s what it was originally intended for, and knowing that when I hear it fills me with pride and gratitude.
“The Remarkable Farkle McBride” concludes the concert without intermission, with Christy Burgess as guest narrator and book illustrations, written by actor John Lithgow and illustrated by CF Payne.
From age 3, Farkle mastered the violin, followed by the flute; trombone; and xylophone, cymbals and drums as the young prodigy ages.
But curiosity doesn’t guide his journey as much as boredom: “His usual gloom” leads him to abandon each instrument after he’s mastered it and find a new one, until—spoiler alert—he’s asked to replace the bad conductor. and has an epiphany: “…then he discovered his favorite sound, Musicians all playing together.”
“It’s almost like the old adage that you have everything you want, and you don’t,” Burgess says. “The opening is, ‘Pity the prodigy, Farkle McBride!’ We wouldn’t think to pity the prodigy, but he looks, ‘Where do I fit in?’ Sometimes being good at something just isn’t enough.Easily won is easily lost.
Director of Shakespeare Outreach at the Robinson Community Learning Center, she sees a connection between today’s students and Farkle’s attempt to find her identity.
“After COVID, all of these students are struggling to fit in,” Burgess says. “…Farkle’s background is interesting, and he’s finally found his footing, and I think that’s something we can all aspire to.”
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But learning about each section of the orchestra, Willis says, prepares Farkle well for his eventual call to the podium.
“As a conductor, it’s important to know each instrument,” he says. “You don’t have to know how to play them all, but you have to be able to help the musicians.”
Burgess plans to narrate with “enthusiasm” and has already read the book to his Robinson students and shown them the video of Lithgow reading it to the music.
“One of the great things about the book is that it has a lot of instruments, and I could ask them what instruments they would like to play,” she says. “When I played the video, they acted like they were playing instruments.”
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With the addition of music by Bill Elliott, the book joins Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” and Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”, two classics that introduced generations of children to the families of orchestral instruments.
“These are all great pieces that do just that,” says Willis. “It’s just a variation of the same thing.”
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With works by other composers on the program, he thinks this concert could have a little more variety educationally.
“I grew up with ‘Peter and the Wolf’ and the ‘Young Person’s Guide’,” says Willis. “They are still very valuable and fantastic introductions to the orchestra. We have a slightly different angle to do the same thing. It will be so much fun and will connect with our young audience who may know the story of the remarkable Farkle McBride.
Burgess did not know the book until the SBSO asked him to tell during the concert. Now, she says, “I’m pretty sure I woke up hearing the music in my head.”
It’s no surprise: Elliott’s melodies are catchy.
“The music is fantastic,” says Willis. “The music is singable, it’s memorable. … It sparkles.
The music, he says, contains the “sense of adventure” found in the book and is “immediately engaging”.
“As he studies the score, he does technical things with it,” Willis says, “and (the melody) comes back slightly differently each time. … At the end, he adapts a few famous pieces to Farkle’s original melody. Ingenuous. It delights on many levels. There’s a definitive homage to “Rhapsody in Blue,” and a quote from 1812 and “Stars and Stripes,” but it’s Farkle’s “Stars and Stripes.” Very inventive.
• WHO: The South Bend Symphony Orchestra with guest narrator Christy Burgess
• Or: University of Notre Dame DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts
• When: 2:30 p.m. March 6
• Cost: $20-$10
• COVID Policy: Mandatory masks.
• For more information: Call 574-631-2800 or visit Performingarts.nd.edu.