Tonight's sublimely freakish performance by the New York Philharmonic of two Walt Disney Co. commissioned "Millennium Symphonies" was so problematic, it is hard to know whom to feel sorry for. Not Disney, of course, because it's got too much money. And not the New York Philharmonic, which may have sold its soul for the weekend. The composers, then, who were given an impossible task--write a choral symphony (with kids--there always have to be kids) worthy of Gustav Mahler and make it palatable to one of the most powerful multinational corporations in the world.
The Mouse wanted big and it got big. But it didn't get great.
This strange collaboration between the entertainment giant and what was once one of the country's best orchestras began with a small dropping from Disney chief Michael Eisner's brain. In 1995 he went to Carnegie Hall to hear Mahler's Symphony No. 8, certainly the composer's most grandiose, though hardly his greatest. The size and spectacle of the huge symphony, with its massed choirs spilling out into the hall's ring of boxes, excited him. It was, he said in an interview before the performance, "Disneyesque."
That spawned the idea of creating an equally grand "Millennium Symphony," originally intended to be an epic score to a Disney movie, except they wouldn't actually create the movie. Just the music. Eisner involved the president of the animation and theatrical division and the vice president for creative projects. They searched the country for a composer, and at this point, Hollywood logic prevailed. Why just one millennium symphony? Concept: Let's commission two. They decided on Michael Torke and Aaron Jay Kernis, both of them just flirting with the age of 40.
On paper, at least, it seemed like two inspired choices. Torke and Kernis have put together respectable careers by working freely across the boundaries of popular and classical music, creating distinctive, postmodern idioms that have both integrity and immediate appeal.
"We weren't looking for accessible, melodic pop music, but we also weren't looking for angst and difficult music," Eisner said this afternoon.
In other words, Disney was looking for the kind of music that every orchestra manager in the country hopes will arrive after commissioning a composer. On the face of it, there was no particular reason why anything untoward should come of Disney's weird foray into the supposedly pure realms of classical music. Forget the curmudgeon's grumbling about "renting" the New York Philharmonic, or moralists wondering how big was the check that could make director Kurt Masur--a hero of the East German people for his courage during the fall of the Berlin Wall--consort with the same company that produced "Tarzan." The only thing that mattered was the music.
Tonight's performance at New York's Avery Fisher Hall was the first indication of how the talented young composers responded to the clash between Disney's highly scripted, tightly controlled creative culture and the more independent and anarchic world of contemporary classical music. Kernis chose to follow the Mahler side of Eisner's inspiration; Torke stuck to his nose-thumbing, post-minimalist style, but followed more closely Eisner's original conception of a symphony that would dramatize various episodes of the century.
Kernis struggled for grandeur and failed. Torke apparently worked to subvert the whole idea, while giving the Mouse what it thought it wanted. Kernis, who has produced few total disasters, now has one to his credit. And Torke, who has a trickster side to his personality, has produced a work that is true to his own eclectic musical spirit, but decidedly bizarre. It will take a good long chapter in his autobiography to explain this one.
Kernis's "Garden of Light" was doomed from the start by a libretto (by David Simpatico and Menna Elfyn) below the level of doggerel, so filled with meaningless mystical affirmation and poetic cliches it gives one a headache even without the music. And in his attempt to outdo Mahler with an immense orchestra, used most often en masse, his symphony suffered the same fate as Mahler's earlier attempt at "Disneyesque" musical aesthetics. It is mushy and confused, with the chorus forced to sing words that cannot be distinguished in all the sonic racket. Some of this score may be salvageable, but pruning shears and reorchestration will be necessary.
Torke, on the other hand, worked with Philip Littell, an experienced librettist who knows how to produce acres of profound-sounding verbiage without crossing the line into full pomposity. Torke's musical response is, paradoxically, redeemed by its eclecticism. Some of this sounds like run-of-the-mill Torke, a rhythmically iterative style that is a bit angular, a bit bold, a bit colorful and at times a bit static. But he changes directions with abandon in the work's various sections, including lovely gospel-inspired passages and a fine bit of theft from the world of rock.
He smiles through the cliches (an offstage trumpet, some Broadway pabulum) and then redeems himself with a brilliant final chorus that seems to say: I can take the money, write the music and outsmart these la-la-land Medicis. But knowing the strange background of how this music came to be is essential to hearing what may be a sneer in it. And if Torke ever expects to get a big fat Disney commission again, he won't tell us what he was really saying until the company has realized the obvious: Classical music commissions are not good for the bottom line.
The program will be repeated Saturday and Tuesday.