Films typically remain in cinemas, and classical music typically remains in concert halls. It is a rare theatrical event in this day and age when film merges with a live orchestra. This past weekend, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra broke that separation of arts and presented “Fantasia” In Concert as part of the ongoing Pops series. The concert, featuring clips from Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” and Roy Disney’s “Fantasia 2000” and complemented by a live RPO soundtrack, successfully merged the cinematic and musical art forms.
The soundtrack was essentially a greatest hits compilation of great Western composers from the last hundred years – Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Dukas, Elgar, and Respighi. Every musical piece was shortened from its original form – this truncation of classical pieces, performing the most famous and aurally striking passages, recreated the arrangements used for both “Fantasia” and “Fantasia 2000.”
Even with a smaller lineup of musicians than in its main concerts, the RPO nonetheless created vivid soundscapes with tremendous dynamic range on the stage of the Kodak Hall.
Much praise is due to conductor Jeff Tyzik, who had to monitor not only his orchestral score, but also a metronome earpiece and a personal video screen in order to coordinate the RPO with the animated clips. In a brief behind-the-scenes demonstration, Tyzik’s video feed filled Kodak Hall’s movie screen. The fact that Tyzik could track a digital clock, a surely infuriating earpiece, visual cue markers, signals about tempo and bowing, animation, and his musical score simultaneously was nothing short of astounding. It was one of the better physical feats of conducting I have seen this season.
The film clips were superb, although one could clearly note the differences between the installments from 1940’s “Fantasia” and “Fantasia 2000.” The original “Fantasia” features a more limited color scheme than its sequel, as well as less complex animation and detailed references (in the Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony sequence) to Greek mythology that may be lost on modern viewers. In contrast, Fantasia 2000 showcases an enormous color palette, skillful blending of CGI and 2D animation (e.g., the flying whales from “The Pines of Rome”), and more universal, rather than culturally specific, mythic tropes. (The one exception, of course, is the “Pomp and Circumstance” sequence from 2000, which humorously retells the story of Noah’s Ark.) Perhaps most obviously, the sequences from the older “Fantasia” lack the broader humor, visual wit, and emotional power of the new “Fantasia.” Both films are great works of art, but Fantasia is Art with a capital A, while 2000 is pop art.
While watching the concert, I appreciated for the first time the thematic richness of the Fantasia project, which explores the human experience, God, fate, and nature. Shorts like “Pomp” and “Pines of Rome” presented tales of divine planning, where characters are guided toward definite historical ends surviving the Great Flood and traveling to heaven, respectively. “Rhapsody in Blue” also depicts characters moving in a linear narrative path toward certain ends, although gods don’t figure in the events – rather, the film’s cartoon New Yorkers, through deliberate actions and some chance encounters, achieve their dreams. Then shorts like Beethoven’s Sixth, which showed a day in the life of Greek gods and “The Firebird,” which depicted a forest spirit’s triumph over a volcano, depicted a nonlinear, cyclical worldview, where characters and seasons don’t reach ends as much as start as the lifecycle over. Finally, there were shorts that lacked either definite ends or a cyclical interpretation of life. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” “Claire de lune,” and the raucous “Bumble Boogie” were simply about momentary events, lacking in any grand significance. Mickey Mouse plays Sorcerer just to have fun.
In other words, “‘Fantasia’ In Concert” experimented with many interpretations of what it means to be alive, rendering the experience not only entertaining, but also dream-like and philosophically profound. The films rank among Disney’s finest.
Still, the concert was not without its flaws. On several occasions (particularly during “Rhapsody”), the RPO wound up slightly out of sync with the video. Given the technical complexity of matching live music to prerecorded video, such lapses are understandable. Nonetheless, the sporadic slips resulted in the orchestra fumbling some of the films’ crucial emotional beats, something a little more rehearsal time could have remedied.
There were some problems with sound, too. First, during guest pianist Andrew Russo’s performance on “Rhapsody,” the sound of the piano occasionally seemed drastically reduced, as if the amplification had suddenly cut out. Second, the excerpt from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which opened the concert, seemed thin in terms of orchestration. There are some pieces that require a full symphonic orchestra rather than simply a smaller pops orchestra. Beethoven’s Fifth is such a piece.
Finally, the video footage had a couple of noticeable problems. For one, an irritating horizontal line kept appearing through the center of the images. For another, several clips were shown in full screen formatting, thus lopping off the sides of the frame and maiming the animation.
On the whole, though, these quibbles are relatively minor and were probably lost on most audience members. Hearing the delighted exclamations and laughter of children and adults alike indicated that the “Fantasia” films and the RPO were working their magic on yet another audience.
Given Disney’s increasing embrace of franchise pictures at the expense of standalone projects as well as the declining quality of both Disney Animation and Pixar’s movies, I doubt that a “Fantasia 3” is coming down the pipeline anytime soon. Still, should Disney ever greenlight a third installment, the studio would do well to emulate the format of “Fantasia” In Concert – balancing the high artistic sentiments of the original “Fantasia” with the emotionally engaging elements of “Fantasia 2000,” while retaining hugely talented musicians (like the RPO members) to craft an engaging survey of Western classical music.
The RPO and Jeff Tyzik are to be commended for bringing this rather experimental evening of sophisticated entertainment to Rochester. I await their next multimedia performance on Feb. 14, 2014. The combined concert/screening of “Singin’ in the Rain” will be worth the wait.
Gorman is a member of the class of 2014.