The National Symphony Orchestra performs ‘Fantasia’ at Wolf Trap


An image from the “Sorceror's Apprentice” segment of Walt Disney's “Fantasia.” (Disney Fantasia Live in Concert/Courtesy of Wolf Trap)
July 13

The National Symphony Orchestra’s summer residency at Wolf Trap continued Friday and Saturday, providing live scoring for selections from the two Walt Disney “Fantasia” films (1940 and 2000). The sizable crowd Friday seemed to enjoy the show, although a great many handheld devices were in use for one purpose or another. There was a glitch near the end, as the wrong film clip came up and conductor Emil de Cou had to walk offstage to straighten things out.

The ostensible draw of the program — getting to hear a full, live symphony orchestra accompany a film — was a little nebulous. Because the orchestra was fed through a patchwork of microphones, patrons were essentially hearing the music through a sound system, particularly back on the lawn. And the mix was askew all night, with percussion sometimes inaudible and other parts often drowning out leading voices. From what I could discern, though, the NSO played pretty well, despite the necessarily strait-jacketed conducting (de Cou had to stay in lock step with the film via an earpiece). But the musical element was far less than ideal.

As for the show itself, it was interesting how the Disney aesthetic changed in the 60 years between films. In 1940, Disney artists began with the composer’s conception of the music and created images to fit, with only minimal trimming of the score. The twee silliness of Amilcare Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” (which also inspired comedians Allan Sherman, Spike Jones and Mel Brooks) was given teasing but respectful expression with the cavorting hippos and ostriches. The Mickey Mouse sequence for Paul Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” remains one of the greatest feats of visual and narrative imagination drawn from a work of music.

In the later film, however, the process was flipped; the animators imagined a scenario (having nothing to do with the piece in question) and sliced and diced the score in any way they needed to fit the timing of the visuals. Least coherent was the Edward Elgar “Pomp and Circumstance” march as the background music for a sequence involving Donald Duck inserting himself into the Noah’s ark story. Disney threw out Stravinsky’s detailed scenario for “The Firebird” and basically did a remake of the 1940 sequence on Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony.

The hope, of course, is that productions such as this will serve to bring more people into the formal concert hall to hear great music as it was meant to be experienced. Fingers crossed.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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