“Moonrise Kingdom” and Britten for All

Thu, Aug 2, 2012

The Ecstatic Blog

I know that I am generally the vocal music correspondent for the Ecstatic Living Room, but I had to veer a bit from my normal realm of responsibility to talk about the movie Moonrise Kingdom.

I went to go see Wes Anderson’s latest film a few days ago at the suggestion of a friend, who was just sure that I was going to love it.  That friend knows my taste well — I was completely enraptured from the first scene.  In the opening montage of the film, the cameras wander from room to room of a house on a rainy day — in one of the rooms, a group of children are playing around a record player, listening to Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which becomes the opening soundtrack to the film.  The montage is at once nostalgic and sweet, and yet, at the same time, an incredibly sophisticated shot, seamlessly moving through each room of the house, introducing us quietly to each of the film’s main characters and transforming the mundane idleness of a rainy afternoon into a visually stunning work of art. Britten’s music is woven in throughout the rest of the film’s soundtrack, providing a musical backdrop that is the perfect reflection of the wacky misadventures of the the movie’s two child protagonists.

In the film, the film’s two lead characters are a young boy and young girl who are in love, and who concoct an elaborate and sophisticated plan to run away together sometime in 1965.  The two embark on a complex and wild journey into the wilds of the island they are living on, managing to outsmart, outwit, and elude the adults who are supposed to be their caretakers at almost every step along the way.  Much of the music that was chosen for the film was music Britten had composed for young people as a way to introduce them to the art form.  Something that has always impressed me about Britten’s music for young people is that it is always incredibly sophisticated.  Britten was fascinated with youth and the precious value of innocence his entire life, and it is clear that he knew that children have much more sophisticated minds that most adults give them credit for.

Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is an elaborate set of a theme and variations that takes the listener through the various sections of the orchestra, showcasing what each instrument and section does and the variety of sounds that they make.  The piece begins with the entire orchestra playing an arrangement of a theme by Purcell, and then Britten tours the orchestra through each following variation on that theme.  The piece ends with the entire orchestra playing an incredibly complex fugue, climaxing to an exciting finish.  Britten never simplifies or assumes that his intended audience won’t be able to understand, just because they are young.  The piece is just as intricate and complex as any of his other compositions — he assumes intelligence and a sophisticated capability of understanding.

A key piece of his music that features prominently in the film is his church parable, Noye’s Fludde.  Britten composed the piece with the intention that it be performed by a mostly-amateur cast in a church or a large hall — most of the roles in the opera are written for children, and it is at a local church production of the piece (in which Wes Anderson’s leading lady is dressed up adorably as a raven) that the film’s two lead characters meet and fall in love.

Another part of “pop” culture that I have been taking in lately is HBO’s new show The Newsroom.  At the beginning of the series’ pilot episode, the show’s lead character, news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) sounds off at a Q and A session at Northwestern University about how, once-upon-a-time-not-too-long-ago, American people used to value intelligence, not stupidity, and celebrated the power of knowledge.  The show has gone on pursuing this theme, by dramatizing the production of a news show, musing on the importance of an informed, educated electorate.  It’s a theme I completely subscribe to when I consider my life as a performing classical musician.

I learned my lesson about this a long time ago the very first time I programmed Britten on a recital in Kirksville, Missouri.  I worried that a small, American town might not appreciate his music, and programmed a lot of lighter, more “accessible” fare around it.  In the end, it turned out that the music that drew in that midwestern audience was Britten’s music — not the lighter, less complex, less intricate music that surrounded it. Seeing Wes Anderson’s nostalgic take on a bygone era, and hearing and seeing how he so tenderly and lovingly wove Britten’s music throughout the film, I was reminded why I am drawn to his music both as a listener and as a performer.  He assumes and celebrates the power of the human mind while never losing touch with the intricacies of the human heart.  He ignites the imagination through his music — reminding us that this music, like all music, truly is for everybody.

Nicholas’s first album focusing on the music of Britten, “Winter Words,” was released in 2011 and was included on the New York Times Classical Music Gift Guide, as well as Best Of Year lists for the New Yorker and the Boston Globe. He releases his second Britten album, “Still Falls the Rain,” on October 9.

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