'Fantasia 2000' live with the Philharmonia Orchestra

by Robert Ryker

The Philharmonia Orchestra: Dec. 27, James Levine conducting in Orchard Hall — Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67: Allegro con brio (Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827); “The Pines of Rome” (Ottorino Respighi, 1879-1936); “Rhapsody in Blue” (George Gershwin, 1898-1937), featuring Ralph Grierson; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2, Op. 102: Allegro (Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich, 1906-75), featuring Yefim Bronfman; “Carnival of the Animals” Finale (Charles-Camille Saint-Saens, 1835-1921), with Yefim Bronfman and Ralph Grierson; “Pomp and Circumstance” Marches Nos. 1-4 (Edward William Elgar, 1857-1934); “Firebird” Suite (Igor Feodorovich Stravinsky, 1882-1971)

Mixed media may sound like a contemporary phrase, but actually it is as old as the “talkies” — that is to say, as old as 1927. In that year, Al Jolson was featured in “The Jazz Singer,” the first production to bring the novelty of sound to motion pictures, and a new era was born.

Also in 1927, 26-year-old Walter Elias Disney was producing short animated cartoons in Los Angeles in a small company with his older brother, Roy. Walt had experimented with a new cartoon character, a cheerful, energetic little mouse with the skills and personality of a human being, and had prepared two shorts. Immediately perceiving the advantages of sound, he abandoned these shorts in favor of “Steamboat Willie,” a Mickey Mouse animated cartoon equipped with voices and music. It was a sensation.

Disney later turned to feature-length animated films. In 1940, he produced the innovative, epoch-making film “Fantasia,” in which cartoon figures and abstract color patterns were made to move in synchronization to symphonic music. He partnered himself with the most renowned musicians of the day, Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

I remember going as a youngster with my mother to see this wonderful musical movie, so lengthy and so rich in composition that, like a concert, it was designed to include an intermission. We both loved it. Nonetheless, Disney’s ambitious project was panned by critics and so-called intellectuals. He was seen as a vulgar showman, his animated cartoons as an inappropriate vehicle for such high art. Crushed by this reception, Disney made no further efforts in this direction.

“Fantasia” was re-released in the late ’50s. Years later, as an adult and an orchestra musician, I was thrilled when my assistant told me that it was again playing at a downtown theater near Place des Arts in Montreal. Right after rehearsal we walked over to the afternoon showing, and again, yes, we loved it. And yet, during the intermission, I turned to my colleague, bemused, and reflected, “You know, Don, I think the Montreal Symphony now sounds better than the Philadelphia Orchestra did then!”

A lifetime of six decades has passed since 1940, and the Disney Studios, now with nephew Roy Jr. at the helm, decided that the time had come for the sequel. I can understand their thought. In his prefatory remarks, he noted that “Walt’s vision was to create a continually evolving film event, building upon the original film by updating it with new pieces of classical music and [new] animation.”

Disney Studios did this, and, to be sure, did it Hollywood style.

Disney chose a great orchestra, the Philharmonia, a great conductor, James Levine, and at least one great soloist. Before releasing the film itself, the entire production was given a splashy send off with a flurry of world premiere shows with the music performed live in Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Thea^tre des Champs-Elysees and Orchard Hall, winding up at last in Los Angeles, film capital of the world. A fortune’s worth of sculpture, jewelry and stuff was commissioned from Cartier, Dolce & Gabbana, Mikimoto, Steiff, Steuben, Tiffany and Harry Winston. I’m not sure why they did that, but it was impressive.

The live performance accompanying the film had some problems, though. It was good, no mistake; it was good. I could not understand, though, why anyone felt the need for amplification in Orchard Hall. The British musicians played splendidly; they needed no electronic assist to impress anyone with their artistry. The amplification was overkill.

Concert halls vary in response. It is quite normal for a concert performance to flex by seconds, occasionally minutes, from one situation to another, even with the same conductor and orchestra. Levine handles with aplomb the daily task of synchronizing the musical and onstage artistry of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Doing the same thing for a musical score and animation is normal work in a recording studio. Live performance is an unforgiving, sudden-death kind of situation, though, for in concert, there are no retakes.

My seat was perfectly positioned so that the monitor mounted on the conductor’s stand was in my view. It was easy to understand the blips floating across the screen, dictating the precise pulse of the music to correspond with the animation. I could see too that in the Beethoven Fifth, the introduction took just one fleeting blip longer than the allocation on the screen. For the rest of the movement, everything that wonderful orchestra played was precisely one moving blip behind the action unfolding on the screen.

Accordingly, I was immeasurably impressed to realize the precise coordination Disney Studios’ artists build into their films.

“Fantasia 2000” is now playing at Tokyo IMAX Theater in Shinjuku. Take someone you love — the kids, your parents, a neighbor — and go see it, and hear it. You’ll love it.