The San Diego Symphony Provides Sonic Panache to Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ at the Rady Shell

A classic of stop-motion animated films, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas fuses the scary, ghoulish fantasies of Halloween with the sentimental uplift of the most familiar secular Christmas story. As unlikely a combination as this may seem, Burton’s 1993 Disney film succeeds because of its brilliant, imaginative animation and composer Danny Elfman’s blockbuster score.

Thiago Tiberio [photo courtesy of the artist]

The San Diego Symphony cannily presented The Nightmare Before Christmas with its complete live symphonic score at The Rady Shell on December 23, the Saturday of this year’s Christmas weekend. ’Twas both a musical and box office triumph.

With a massive screen suspended above the orchestra and the matching Jumbotrons on either side of the stage, the film provided an aptly imposing visual presentation, and the orchestra under guest conductor Thiago Tiberio complemented that feat with a vibrant, brassy account of Elfman’s score.

In the program biography of the young Brazilian conductor, Tiberio is lauded as a specialist in live musical synchronization to film, and he clearly demonstrated his mastery aligning Elfman’s music—a boisterous, unrelenting sonic barrage with the complex orchestration of a Richard Strauss tone poem and the clever reversals of a Bernard Herrmann film score—with the quicksilver dramatics of Caroline Thompson’s dashing screenplay.

As original and daring as Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas appears, it is indebted to the visual tropes of early 20th-century German Expressionism in its depictions of its Halloween sections and to the humorous characterizations of Dr. Seuss’ Grinch in its Christmas scenes. Nevertheless, the conflation of these holidays and stylistic periods is clearly sui generis. Earlier this month, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

The San Diego Symphony presented this film with live orchestra at The Rady Shell on December 23, 2023.

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