Danny Elfman brings down the house in Vienna

Montages had a brief chat with film composer extraordinaire Danny Elfman as he was honoured during the 2017 edition of Hollywood In Vienna a concert that not only showcased his long collaboration with Tim Burton, but also some of his lesser performed scores for other directors.

Back in 2013, we visited Hollywood in Vienna for a conversation with the late composer James Horner. Now, 4 years later, the event has cemented its position as one of the major film music happenings in Europe – celebrating its 10th anniversary as a showcase for the biggest names in the industry. It’s an event soaked in champagne, red carpets and spectacular surroundings, appearing more as a celebration than a festival. This year, composer Danny Elfman was the main guest and recipient of the Max Steiner Lifetime Achievement Award.

On September 28th and 29th , two concerts (one “regular” and one gala, but sporting similar programmes) were held in the lavish Wien Konzerthaus, a venue brimming with glittering gold ornamentation and stupendous candeliers, befitting the rich Viennese music tradition.

The first part of the concert was dedicated to ‘fairytales’, somewhat broadly defined, and included selections from non-Elfman works like Alan Menken’s Beauty and the Beast (1991/2017), Mychael Danna’s Life of Pi (2012), Justin Hurwitz’ LaLaLand (2016), Jerry Goldsmith’s Mulan (1998) and Harry Gregson-Williams’ The Chronicles of Narnia (2005), with an earshattering performance of Hans Zimmer and Elton John’s The Lion King (1994) to cap it all off (featuring singer Lebo M from the original score, as well as a big African ensemble). Some of the drum kit performances were swallowed by the venue’s more classical acoustics, causing a wall of sound, but the orchestral bits reverberated organically from every corner of the impressive concert hall.

Danny Elfman receives standing ovations from the Vienna crowd. Photo: Eirik Myhr

In addition to the performance by the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien (under leadership of conductors James Shearman and John Mauceri) and the Philharmonia Chor Wien, as well as a multitude of vocal and instrumental soloists, artsy conceptualizations and film clips were projected on the back wall, further enhanced by an array of light cannons that coloured the room in shades of red, blue and golden. If the goal was to engross the spectator in an audiovisual experience (more than a purely musical experience), they certainly succeeded in every way.

‘Fairytales’ was also a keyword for the second half of the concert, focussing exclusively on Danny Elfman’s music. Classic Tim Burton hits like The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Batman (1989), Beetlejuice (1988) and a gorgeous, heartbreaking rendition of “Alice’s Theme” from Alice in Wonderland (2010) were faithfully reproduced and sometimes also offering a slightly alternative interpretation of the material (like the Vanessa Mae-like violin virtuoso Sandy Cameron riffing wildly on “Edwardo the Barber” from Edward Scissorhands). Elfman, who was sitting close to me with his daughter Mali, seemed appropriately enthused by the performance.

However, most of these hits have already been performed multiple times, especially in the ongoing Tim Burton/Danny Elfman concert world tour. What was more impressive, and intriguing, to me as a longtime fan was the selections from non-Burton scores, like Milk (2008), The Wolfman (2010), Sommersby (1992) and Black Beauty (1994). The last two, in particular, display Elfman in a more consonant mode, with broad, pastoral segments closer to John Barry than his usual, more densely orchestrated and contrapuntal writing. They’re also good examples of his versatile nature, and the scope of styles and approaches he employs in his film music.

Danny Elfman reads the concert program eagerly while daughter Mali Elfman (left) waits anxiously. Photo: Eirik Myhr

Since 2005, with the premiere of his concert work ‘Serenada Schizophrana‘, many of his drama and indie scores have veered towards a minimalist expression inspired by Philip Glass – a further testament to his versatility and refusal to be pigeonholed into one particular sound. This is particularly evident in the two Errol Morris documentaries Standard Operating Procedure (2008) and The Unknown Known (2013):

“Well, for me it’s all about contrast”, Elfman tells us from the red carpet in advance of the gala concert, “I was very happy that at the same time as I was doing this huge, dense score for Justice League, I was doing this very minimal micro-score for Gus van Sant in a tiny movie of his. It’s the contrast that makes me happy.”

One of these (relatively) smaller assignments was James Ponsoldt’s The Circle (2017) , which allowed Elfman the opportunity to do an almost all-electronic score, arguably the first time since Wisdom (1987). “That was great fun”, Elfman says, “performing it all by myself. Girl on the Train was also [more or less] synthesizer. I had so much fun doing both of them”.

Elfman doesn’t only mix genres and styles, however, he also loves exploring different musical arenas. He’s previously done music for the concert stage, ballet, amusement parks, phone apps, internet series, advertisements and more. Is there any arena or genre left for him to explore?

Danny Elfman in conversation with Montages. Photo: Eirik Myhr

“In the concert music area, there are so many arenas left”, he says, “I leave next week to meet with the Berlin Philharmonic. I’m writing a piano quartet for them. That’s a whole new thing for me. I’ve never written anything like that before. Every concert piece I do now is completely new. The violin concerto I just finished was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and because of that very exciting.”

When asked if he’d like to do an ambitious “space” science fiction film at some point – one of the few missing genres on his resume – he responds with a humourous “Well, I’m waiting”. Waiting for someone to hire him, I suppose. The mind boggles at what Elfman could create with a canvas like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), although it probably wouldn’t be too far removed from Hans Zimmer’s similarly Glass-inspired score.

Two of these aspects will be mirrored in Elfman’s upcoming assignments – first the score for Zack Snyder’s Justice League, premiering November 17, 2017 and reportedly including musical references both to Elfman’s own Batman theme as well as John Williams’ Superman theme, and the new Gus van Sant movie Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (slated for a 2018 release). Plus whatever oddball project he’s able to squeeze in between the two movies.

Danny Elfman is one of the most self-critical composers in Hollywood, notoriously known for his awkwardness in public situations and his reluctance to accept praise from fans and colleagues. However, in Vienna he seemed to be in a surprisingly good mood, even gifting the audience a song performance of “What’s This?” from The Nightmare Before Christmas as he went onstage to receive his lifetime achievement award.

Once again, Hollywood in Vienna succeeds in being the most extrovert and celebratory of the European film music festivals – undoubtedly an experience to remember not only for the audience, but also for the composer they’re honouring.


You can hear the whole interview with Elfman and other involved parties on Thor Joachim Haga’s film music webcast Celluloid Tunes.


Concert producer Sandra Tomek and conductor John Mauceri. Photo: Eirik Myhr
Conductor John Mauceri in conversation with Montages. Photo: Eirik Myhr
The Lion King singer Lebo M arrives with entourage. Photo: Torsten Ehrig
Robert Townson (chairman of soundtrack label Varese Sarabande) in conversation with Montages. Photo: Eirik Myhr
Danny Elfman and daughter Mali Elfman on the red carpet. Photo: Eirik Myhr
Danny signing autographs. Photo: Eirik Myhr
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