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For Halloween, conductors choose a little fright music

Francesco Milioconductor Skokie Valley Symphony OrchestrHighlPark Strings was among those who named “Danse Macabre” by Saint Saens as chilling piece

Francesco Milioto, conductor of the Skokie Valley Symphony Orchestra and the Highland Park Strings, was among those who named “Danse Macabre” by Saint Saens as a chilling piece of music. It depicts the devil dancing at midnight with skeletons.

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Updated: November 30, 2012 6:24AM



Halloween has become the second biggest holiday in the United States, so it is no surprise that symphony and choral conductors are tempted to program music that reflects the eerie nature of the holiday.

We polled some of our area conductors to ask them to pick their favorite “scary” music.

“ ‘Symphony Fantastique’ by Berlioz,” replied Larry Eckerling, music director of the Evanston Symphony Orchestra, “and its ‘March to the Gallows.’ The subtext provides imagery which contributes to the scariness.”

Berlioz’s powerful work depicts a young artist, under the influence of opium, who dreams he is being taken to the guillotine after supposedly killing his beloved. It is packed with brass calls and swirling strings and finished with drum rolls and dense chords depicting the falling blade.

Allan Dennis, founder and director of Midwest Young Artists in Highwood, also cited Symphony Fantastique’s “The Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath.”

He described the reaction of one of the players in one of his youth ensembles. “I actually had an orchestra member leave rehearsal once because she was so frightened when she opened the page and saw the title,” he said, adding, “[but] it might have been because it is so difficult to play as well!”

Both “Witches’ Sabbath” and “March to the Gallows” are first on the list for Northwestern University faculty member Stephen Alltop, director of music for Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston and music director/conductor of the Elmhurst Symphony. He also mentioned “Gnomus” and “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Dennis, Alltop and Francesco Milioto, conductor of the Skokie Valley Symphony Orchestra and the Highland Park Strings, all mentioned “Danse Macabre” by Saint-Saens as another chilling piece of music. It depicts the devil dancing at midnight with skeletons, whose clattering bones are represented by the xylophone.

The “Dies Irae” from the Verdi “Requiem” owes no musical debt to the Gregorian chant used in the Catholic Mass for the Dead. But the Latin words chronicling the Last Judgement, are the same.

“Hell fire, trumpets, swooping strings, bass drum,” declared Milioto. “Excellent scary music.”

Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Hitchcock’s main composer, was cited by Dennis for his terrifying score for “Psycho,” with strings screeching upward again and again in the terrible shower scene.

“Certain harmonies make music scary,” explained Eckerling. He mentioned diminished chords, in which the second note and third note in a major triad are each taken down half a step.

“The relentless use of diminished chords, which are not consonant and yet do not necessarily demand resolution, leaves the listener floating out in no man’s land, which is unsettling,” he declared.

Timm Adams, conductor of the Chicago Chamber Choir, spoke about the musical elements that contribute to a composition’s fright quotient.

“Minor keys instead of major keys, unresolved dissonance, with lots of minor seconds and tritones, diminished chords and other non-traditional harmonies,” he explained. “And repetitive rhythmic or melodic gestures, and I mean repetitive to the point of playing with your mind. Think the theme from ‘Jaws.’ ”

Allan Dennis recalls conducting a particularly affecting piece of music, “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” by Penderecki. “I was doing this one summer with a 75-member Suzuki string orchestra in Stevens Point, Wis. on the 30-year anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

“Remember this was the Japanese Suzuki Institute,” he added. “I still get choked up thinking about it because when we finished, there were audible sobs throughout the room. It was scary because it depicted a horrible actual event.”

Dorothy Andries is a local free-lance writer.



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