Seeing Randy Newman before in a solo setting last summer (read my review) prepared me less than I would have expected for seeing him with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. For starters, a high percentage of the audience was clearly there to see the orchestra, dressed in suits and evening dresses, and not little old Randy. The season ticket-holder vibe led to an unusual audience for a singer/songwriter concert, less apt to laugh at funny lyrics and prone to waiting until the very last ringing of the piano in every song to applaud.
Just as strange as the experience in the audience was the sight onstage. Though I had known he would be performing with the orchestra, I had not quite pictured it right. I had imagined a little string section backing him up on some songs, not some 70-odd musicians with percussion, brass, and a conductor. And in front of it all, a short senile piano player singing songs about racists, the slave trade, and Karl Marx.
For many of these songs, the orchestra was not strictly necessary. Indeed, for the first section of the concert I was not entirely sure why they were there in the first place. They added to some songs, such as a brash Great Nations of Europe and a bouncing Love Song (You and Me), but for most you could take ‘em or leave ‘em (and on plenty of selections, Newman did just that, performing solo as everyone else watched).
About forty-five minutes in, however, we learned their function when Newman took the conductor’s platform. Not generally a fan of orchestral music, I forgot that Randy even did scores. However, they were full-blown classical numbers that were what much of the audience had come to see. He did two selections before the intermission, both Academy Award-nominated scores. The music from Toy Story was fast and bouncy, intent to keep up with the frenetic pace of a Pixar movie, but had quite a few memorable sections. The Natural music was slower, taking its time with several familiar refrains (the theme is apparently played at most baseball games). He said it was the best it had ever been performed, and, though I’m far from an orchestral expert, this group seemed to deserve the praise. Tight, lively, and focused, they kept lengthy instrumental pieces interesting for even someone as low-culture as me.
A couple more followed after intermission, including the highlight of the four (and the only one not nominated for an Oscar…go figure), the Maverick music. It had a mariachi feel, with plenty of trumpet soloing and was one of the most up-tempo affairs of the night. The Avalon score was distinctly less memorable as a few strange harp interludes, “doing things no harp should have to do” as Randy put it, were the only notable part of the piece.
Back to the piano for the remaining of the show. He seemed to save the best for last, at least in terms of orchestra use. While there were still several numbers where the extra instruments added nothing, tunes like Better Off Dead and In Germany Before the War achieved emotional heights with the swelling strings that would not have been possible with mere piano plunking, including parts that were orchestra-only, Newman sitting back as these new additions added their own voices.
However, the peak of the Newman-orchestra interaction came, appropriately enough, for the final song. Louisiana (1927) is one of his best songs anyway, and works pretty well in a normal piano setting. The elaborate string arrangement of the original live changes the whole feel, highlighting the tension of Newman’s nasal croak backed by lush swooping melodies. A song with a pop undertone, the flutes and cellos gave way to soaring violins as the song grew and grew, the orchestra and Newman playing as one being. The orchestra scores were good, but moments like this are why an orchestra can add to some of Newman’s songs in ways no piano ever could.
Short People (solo)
The World Isn’t Fair
I Miss You
Love Song (You and Me)
You Can Leave Your Hat On (solo)
I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It) (solo)
The Great Nations of Europe
A Few Words In Defense of Our Country (solo)
Selections from Toy Story
Selections from The Natural
Selections from Maverick
Selections from Avalon
I Love to See You Smile
In Germany Before the War
Dixie Flyer (solo)
Better Off Dead
You’ve Got a Friend In Me
Real Emotional Girl
Political Science (solo)
Lonely at the Top
I Think It’s Going to Rain Today