Putting together a picnic, and sitting on the lawn with friends, sipping warm white wine out of plastic cups, a couple of which inevitably develop hairline cracks from being sat on or squashed in the car on the way over, while a balloon bobs over your picnic basket to make it easier for your other friends to find you in the crowd, until the person behind you protests that the balloon blocks her view and the usher comes over to tell you to get rid of it, and you wish you could let it drift up in the sky, like some of the other freed balloons, rising over the grounds and perhaps signaling to everyone for miles around who might happen to see it that they should come and meet you on your Indian-print bedspread and listen to Tchaikovsky or “Aida” well or badly played, you can hardly tell which thanks to the haze of wine and conversation and the lousy sound system; but you don’t have the nerve to let the balloon go, because it is surely not environmentally friendly to release it upon the world, so you tie it to a garbage can instead, and muse on the wry symbolism of departed celebration, the balloon blithely beckoning people to a pile of trash, as you make your way back to your chicken salad, is a summertime ritual for many people in many cities across America. Guilty? To a degree. Pleasure? Occasionally.
And then, just as I’m settling into a kind of dream state on my blanket, along comes Wolf Trap with a new director, Arvind Manocha (now in his second year) and some new programming highlights to upend all of my curmudgeonly preconceptions about the outdoor summer season with a new infusion of energy. Remember the days when Wolf Trap used to present groups like the Philadelphia Orchestra? They’re back (on June 28). Remember when the NSO used to play there with major soloists? Welcome, Jean-Yves Thibaudet (July 18) and Yo-Yo Ma (Aug. 2). And while the Wolf Trap Opera didn’t actually need a shot in the arm — the company has long been a fine and adventurous training-ground for rising young professionals (Lawrence Brownlee, Dawn Upshaw, Eric Owens, Denyce Graves are a few of the notable alumni) — it’s great to see its artists perform, at least one night a summer, not at their usual theater at the Barns, but on the Filene Center stage, with the NSO accompanying them. (This year’s offering is “Carmen” [July 25], in the same kind of video-based “Operascape” production we saw last year in “La Traviata.”)
In short, I’ll be sitting up and taking notice, not on my blanket but on one of the “real” seats in the roofed-in amphitheater, and hoping that Manocha can continue to lead Wolf Trap back to more of a centrist balance between the trashy and the artistic. I’d hate to see Wolf Trap lose its camp: those video-games concerts and Sing-Along Sound of Music, those times when orchestras touch thousands of people who don’t like the same kinds of performances I like, who tear up to music from “Final Fantasy” (which I might do, had I ever played “Final Fantasy”). But I’d be excited if it could represent more of a cross-section of the artistic spectrum, and this summer it seems to be taking steps in that direction.
Back though, for a minute, to the wine and the blanket and some of those delightfully trashy pop performances that I never actually let myself go to. Take “Fantasia.” I might praise it as a fine children’s movie; the 1940 version, at any rate. My toddler son already demands “Dinosaurs!” (Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”) and “Fairies!” (“The Nutcracker”) and “Mickey Mouse! Brooms! Many, many brooms!” (“The Sorceror’s Apprentice”).
But I actually think it’s more than that. I think it’s daring. We praise Leonard Bernstein for introducing kids to classical music with his Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic, but I don’t think we appreciate enough how the original “Fantasia” paved the way. I am surely not alone in, every time I hear Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” remembering the dinosaurs. Yes, Disney, with the help of Leopold Stokowski, the conductor, chopped up the Stravinsky score quite a bit to serve its purpose. I don’t care. Maybe that’s the guilty part.
As for the visuals, here’s another guilty confession: I apprehend better through my eyes than through my ears. This is supposed to be true of a majority of people, whether through natural inclination or exposure to today’s visually dominated culture (hence all of the various attempts to add visual components to orchestral performances). I can’t speak to the 1999 version of “Fantasia,” which I am predisposed to label inferior but have not, in fact, ever seen; but one of the pleasures of the 1940 version is seeing those handcrafted animation cells, luminous and with a particular quality of depth and character I think none of today’s computer-animated films can touch, flow together and unspool with a level of craft that parallels the music. You call it watered-down entertainment. I call it an introduction to art. Yes, I bought it. Pour me another glass of wine.
Disney Fantasia Live in Concert will be presented by the National Symphony Orchestra on July 11 and 12 at Wolf Trap.