NSO Performs Wizardry On 'Oz' Score

Monday, August 7, 2006

It was easy to get to Oz on Saturday night. All you had to do was go Over the Beltway and Follow the Dulles Toll Road to Wolf Trap, where the classic 1939 movie "The Wizard of Oz" was being screened -- with the music performed live by the National Symphony Orchestra.

And is there any better way to experience this feast of a musical?

Aside from the unforgettable songs by E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen, the Oscar-winning score by Herbert Stothart uses everything from pop songs of the day ("Where, Oh Where, Has My Little Dog Gone?") to snippets from the classical repertoire. Robert Schumann's "Frolicher Landmann" surfaces in the Kansas scenes, you can hear a bit of Mendelssohn when Toto escapes from the Wicked Witch, and Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" accompanies the chase scene in the castle.

But on the recorded soundtrack, much of the subtlety is drowned by the beating of monkey wings and the pitter-patter of Munchkin feet -- which inspired NSO Associate Conductor Emil de Cou to attempt the live event.

"It's the most difficult thing I've ever done," he said before the performance, noting that the precise synchronization leaves no room for error.

But de Cou and the NSO brought it off with near-perfection. Unsuspected textures and details emerged with vivid clarity, and the powerful moments roared. It wasn't always easy to make out the movie's recorded dialogue -- the amplification was muddy and the orchestra sometimes surged a bit too strongly -- but the songs all rang out brilliantly, as if just released from long captivity. Oz never sounded better.

-- Stephen Brookes

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