Sometimes an event can complete overwhelm. The music is there. The visuals are there. The nostalgia is there. And above all, the love is there, for both the performers and the audience. Well, at least some of the audience. More on that in a bit. But for now, I’ll just bask in the sheer joy that is Disney’s Fantasia, performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
I will say up front that this is an abridged concert. As such, there are some beloved pieces that didn’t make the cut. I know, I’m a little sad by this too as some of those were my favorites of the films. Yes, films. The DSO performed selections from both Fantasia and Fantasia 2000, which is why some pieces didn’t make the cut. That would be an incredible concert, but also incredibly long. I think this is more of a mercy to the performers than to those of us in the audience who would want the full treatment. It’s sometimes easy to forget just how much energy it takes to play these pieces properly, not to mention the concentration of doing so in front of a live audience with the added factor of animation distraction.
Our conductor for this performance, Sarah Hicks, described the process for us. In the original version of these films, the music is recorded up front, and the animators synced their visuals to it. For a performance like this, the conductor has some extra tools on hand that aren’t part of the toolbox for the average concert experience. First, she has an earpiece providing a click track, giving her the exact downbeat of the original recording. Second, at her podium is a smaller screen that shows the movie. Overlaid on this screen is a flashing white circle that also provides musical sync, as well as a scrolling white bar, and a number counter. Third, there’s the orchestra as a whole, which has been rehearsed to be able to follow along with this entire process in a way that’s completely anathema to how they’d normally go about it. And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s the big screen behind the orchestra, showing the featured animations for the audience to see. As Ms. Hicks described it, “It’s sort of like a demented video game.”
For a film score buff like myself, I find this immensely interesting simply on account of this being the exact process used to record most film scores. As I say, it’s backwards from how Fantasia was conceived and recorded, but that’s part of what made Fantasia the experimental masterpiece it is.
A bit of personal background here. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen the DSO perform something like this. A couple of years ago, they did something similar with a performance of Bugs Bunny on Broadway, which was a selection of classic Looney Tunes shorts played in full with the DSO providing the music. So you see, I went into this knowing the DSO was more than capable of switching gears and pulling off something like this. But let’s get serious for a moment. It’s one thing to perform a Looney Tunes short. That’s nothing to sneeze at, certainly. I hold those old toons in high regard. But this is the absolute king of animation, with what I consider to be the crown jewels in the Disney library. The two Fantasia films are my absolute favorites in the entire Disney lineup. I owe the first one for introducing me to classical music before I even knew what that was. While it was John Williams and Star Wars that introduced me to film score, Fantasia introduced me to Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and many others at an age where I had no clue what greatness really was. I remember sitting in the floor in elementary school, surrounded my classmates, watching Fantasia on a screen via reel to reel projector. Many of my classmates didn’t get it. I’m not sure I did. But I was fascinated by the idea of pure music and animation, where story wasn’t always necessary but still utilized for some pieces.
So fast forward to last night. This was the view I had, close enough to see the conductor’s monitor and the dimly lit orchestra players work their magic, and just far enough back to get the full screen and full power of the orchestra.
As you can see, the house lights are dimmed, and there are stand lights for the performers so they can see their sheet music. If you look to the conductor’s podium, you can see a digital screen. More on that in a moment.
It would have been a near-perfect experience if not for the audience. Such is standard going in my life, where the worst thing about the general public is the people. Typically at a concert like this, if patrons miss a curtain call, they remain outside until the end of a set, whereby they’re let back into the auditorium so as not to disturb the performances. For whatever reason, we had about half the audience showing up late, and people were let in after each and every piece, many of them not finding their seats before the next piece had begun, stepping on toes and pushing their butts into faces. To say it was obnoxious is an understatement. Whatever happened to the idea of concert etiquette? I expect the average audience member who would only attend an event like this as opposed to the regular concert performances to treat it like a movie theater. But I expect the staff of the Meyerson Symphony Center to know better. It’s not only rude to the audience, it’s rude to the musicians who are trying to pull off a world class performance. And I mean world class. I’m constantly reminded that the DSO is one of the top orchestras in the world right now. But they’re only human. The entire point of a concert like this is to eliminate distractions. And then, of course, these patrons proceeded to talk and kick seats during the performance, and at least one idiot fired off a camera flash a handful of times. At least I had the courtesy to take my photo before most of the orchestra was seated, let alone in the midst of a performance. I suppose I should consider this a win that only one person decided to marinate themselves in their scent of choice. Usually there are a lot more of those. To the DSO, on behalf of the audience, many apologies. And apologies to the readers for my little rant. This is why I don’t go to the movie theater much. Home video has made audiences stupid and rude. Moving on…
Given the process of how the orchestra has to operate, I won’t say this was a spot-on synchronization with the feature. There were a couple of times here and there where the animation and music were a hair off, but these moments were few and far between, and I’m going to blame the audience for the large part of that. The rest is simply the human factor of a live performance. Having said that, we all know the animation is the best there is, because it’s Disney. The DSO’s musical accompaniment added a whole new dimension to it that you just can’t get from home video. No matter how many times they remaster Fantasia, even on Blu-ray they’re still limited by the original 1940 recording and the degradation that age has caused over the years. Some artifacting simply can’t be removed, regardless of the advancements in such process. Stereo sound was invented specifically for that film, a technological achievement they called Fantasound. It was remarkable for its time. We live in the age where digital surround sound can actually reproduce sound so precise it’s as good, if not better, than a live performance in many cases. Acoustics are always the key to that, of course, and the Meyerson was built for acoustics. Your average living room or movie house just can’t compete with this.
I mentioned that some tracks were left out by necessity. I won’t bemoan it. Instead, let’s talk about what was performed, because there were a couple of surprises. The playlist looked like this:
Selections from Symphony No. 5
I. Allegro con brio
Selections from Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral”
Selections from The Nutcracker Suite
Claire de Lune from Suite bergamasque
The Firebird Suite (1919 Version)
Selections from Dance of the Hours (La Gioconda)
L’apprenti sorcier (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”)
Selections from Pomp and Circumstance
Selections from Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome)
I. I pini di Villa Borghese (The Pines of the Villa Borghese)
II. I pini del Gianicolo (The Pines of the Janiculum)
III. I pini della Via Appia (Pines of the Appian Way)
As I said, there were a couple of surprises. Actually, there were three. The first occurred during the finale for Pines of Rome. If you scroll back up to that wide shot of the auditorium, you’ll see that there are gallery and chorus seats behind and above the orchestra stage. On either side of the pipe organ, there are these recessed areas that provide an additional row of seating up there for performers when the situation calls for it. For this third movement of Pines of Rome, the DSO put its powerhouse trumpets and trombones up there on the right side, and nobody knew they were there in the dark until their stand lights went on and they announced their majesty. “Blown away” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The second surprise will be instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the films because this piece doesn’t appear in the original movie. Claire de Lune was originally arranged, recorded, and fully-animated for Fantasia, but it was ultimately cut from the original release due to the film’s length. Walt Disney had conceived of Fantasia as a “roadshow,” where the individual musical pieces could be interchanged in subsequent releases wherein the film would evolve and take on a life of its own. It was often thought that Claire de Lune would be one of the first pieces to receive this revolving treatment. It was not to be, however, for Fantasia ended up taking a hit at the box office due to the cost of the new Fantasound audio systems and the loss of the European market due to World War II, which is why Walt Disney Animation gave us Fantasia 2000 nearly 60 years later, to honor and to continue the original. Claire de Lune saw its initial release in 1946 as part of Disney’s Make Mine Music. To have it as part of the lineup here was such a special treat.
You’ve not seen Disney’s Claire de Lune? Here you go. You’re welcome.
The third surprise happened as an encore. I like to think maybe it would have happened anyway, but encores are typically predicated on the notion that the audience enjoyed what they heard and demonstrates their appreciation accordingly. Seems simple enough, yes? As I said, our audience was a bunch of a Neanderthals. When you get a world class orchestra playing their hearts out to some of the best music ever written, you reward them with a standing ovation. I stood and applauded. Those in my party did likewise. It took a while for that idea to catch on. It was like this was a foreign concept to the audience, and you could see the visible confusion on the faces of the orchestra members. (Again, apologies!) When it did catch on, there was a collective sigh of relief up on stage, and the conductor gave us one more track.
Oh yes, I did grin big. I was hoping for “A Night on Bald Mountain” or “Rhapsody in Blue,” but as I say, I’ll gladly take what I can get. It’s the DSO and Disney. Any “more” is always “better.” And I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was. After all, this piece is definitely short enough for an encore.
All in all, excepting the general ignorance of the audience, which the house really should have helped to overcome where they could, it was a night I won’t soon forget for all kinds of reasons. My gratitude for this concert knows no bounds.