February 3, 2020
Trust me, all the threads of this rambling narrative will come together by the end. Promise.
It was back in the 1980s that musician (and future Canadian Senator) Tommy Banks declared that Edmonton was just too big and too good a city not to have a concert hall. Tommy believed in Edmonton. In fact, his faith in his community was probably outranked only by his belief in the value of the arts in the lives of us all – but particularly young people.
That’s why when the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the Winspear Centre launched a project dedicated to nurturing and promoting music to the entire community, they called it The Tommy Banks Centre for Musical Creativity. The name was not only apt, it was a no-brainer.
And it’s also why composer Darren Fung, raised in Edmonton and one of the first beneficiaries of the ESO’s Young Composers Project, made sure to invite Tommy to a special event about four years ago. Darren had composed the score to The Great Human Odyssey, a documentary film by anthropologist (and fellow Edmontonian) Dr. Niobe Thompson. Keeping the hometown feel going, Fung and Thompson were able to arrange funding allowing them to engage musicians from the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and local choir Pro Coro Canada, to record the score for the film.
After the documentary had aired on TV in both Canada and the U.S., Darren adapted his score for an in-concert version of The Great Human Odyssey. Once again, they returned to Edmonton in 2016, and The Great Human Odyssey: In Concert was premiered by the ESO in March of 2016. It required a massive re-think of the original source material to make it work in a concert setting, and Darren recalls the “test run,” with invited guests.
“I invited Tommy Banks,” Fung said in an interview this past January, “and I think he was so proud of the fact that this kid from Edmonton, who lives in L.A., came back to Edmonton to do what was a world-class product and share it with the world.”
History is repeating itself, in all the right ways, on Thursday, March 19. See, after The Great Human Odyssey won some honours at the Canadian Screen Awards (including Darren’s score for the film),Niobe Thompson and Darren Fung reunited for Dr. Thompson’s next big, ambitious documentary, Equus – Story of the Horse. It aired last fall on CBC and PBS, and it, too, won all sorts of Canadian Screen Awards (surprise! Darren’s score won this time around, too). And it, too, will premiere in a new In Concert version at the ESO’s Robbins Lighter Classics concert on March 19. For both Darren and Niobe, bringing both of these projects “home,” and working with Edmonton musicians, was vital to their vision.
“We’ve really charted our own course with filmmaking in Canada by coming to Edmonton and recording the score with our signature orchestra,” says Dr. Thompson. “It’s not something that happens typically in films and television – it’s simply too expensive. But from the very beginning, I felt very strongly that we should be working at home and that there would be intangible benefits to doing that.”
It wasn’t that simple, of course. Handful of Flims, Dr. Thompson’s Edmonton-based production house, had to raise the money to do things their way. “We did, and that’s a long story. But when we brought (the CBC) not only the beautiful score, but a story about making the score here in Canada, which itself was a film, I think they really saw the logic of the story-telling value in making the music at home, and also really paying attention to the music.”
The Young Composers Project was the brainchild of John Estacio, the ESO’s first-ever Composer in Residence. To this day, it continues to nurture emerging local talent, and – to keep piling on the Edmonton aspects of the story – yet another former Young Composer also got involved in the production of the music for both films.
Harrison Lee was the 2006 Young Composer, mentored by then-Composer in Residence, Allan Gilliland. “I met Darren in Los Angeles,” says Lee. “I moved down there to learn film scoring myself for one year. And (Darren) had just moved to L.A. as well, and was looking for a new assistant. So I worked for Darren for about a year, then moved on to other ventures . So I was in Edmonton at the time of the recording of Great Human Odyssey, and I got to just hang out, look at scores and enjoy the orchestra. So what we’re doing (for Equus) is streamlined from what we learned doing Great Human Odyssey. One of the biggest things was headphones. You need 60 people to hear a click track, so there was a bunch of work there. I designed a custom thing and that little headphone kit has its own little life, being rented to orchestras.”
So, as promised, that’s why three locally-trained artists were back in Edmonton from admittedly warmer climes, during one of our patented cold snaps, tying together all those threads that would have made Tommy Banks so proud. “You can do it great in Edmonton, you can do anything in Edmonton – and that was always the Tommy mantra, right?” says Darren Fung. “It’s an incredible homecoming to come home and work with some of the very same players that were performing that Young Composers piece that I did a million years ago.”
“I will always come back to Edmonton,” states Niobe Thompson. “This is my home, my parents live here, that’s the case for all three of us. I really love to come back, no matter when.”
The cold snap should be gone by March 19. Probably.