By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Walt Disney’s Fantasia
Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, John Mauceri, conductor
Friday, August 19 • Hollywood Bowl
Next performances: Tonight at 8:30; tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.
John Mauceri returned to Hollywood Bowl last night leading the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra — the ensemble he founded 20 years ago — in the same program with which he left the HBO five years ago to become Chancellor of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts: Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
Technically that’s not correct. Last night wasn’t Fantasia,. nor was it what we saw five years ago. Rather, it was an evening that used portions of segments from the 1940 movie that was originally a financial failure but is now considered a landmark, along with other elements. They coalesced into a program that absolutely honored Walt’s spirit, since Disney had envisioned Fantasia as a movie that, as Mauceri said last night, would always be something new with segments being added and replaced each time it was shown.
One reason this program works so well is Mauceri, who received a standing ovation when he came onstage from many of the 13,580 in attendance. The 66-year-old New York native remains the platinum standard in conductors who converse with the audience, delivering important information with erudite wit. Throughout the evening his comments enlightened the audience as to the movie’s importance in a multitude of areas (e.g., the fusion of music and animation, the film’s technical achievements, and its history). He also offered several interesting tidbits about conductor Leopold Stokowski, who was a major contributor to the film and with whom Mauceri studied when he was 27 and Stokowski was 90.
The most interesting parts of the evening were four segments that didn’t make it into the 1940 movie.
Debussy’s Claire de Lune had been completed in 1942 and eventually appeared in a 1946 Disney feature entitled Make Mine Music. The original animation was discovered 50 years later and animators’ use of two egrets in moonlit water combined with Debussy’s ethereal music proved to be magical, although to these ears it might have been even more effective using the composer’s original piano score rather than Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement.
The animation for Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela was never completed but the chalk and pastel storyboards, shown while the orchestra (with Cathy Del Russo on English horn) played Sibelius’ tone poem with touching tenderness, were gorgeous and, as Mauceri pointed out, demonstrated part of the pains-taking, hand-drawn animation process employed in the era before computers.
The backstory to Destino is even more convoluted. In 1946, Disney, Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali and Disney artist John Hench collaborated on this project, using the music of Mexican songwriter Armando Dominguez. The piece lay forgotten until Roy E. Disney resurrected it and produced a six-minute film in 2003 that was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Animated Short Film.” As might be expected with a Dali project, the art was, indeed, surreal but the music — which used the soundtrack singing of Dora Luz while the orchestra played the accompaniment — proved to be haunting.
The fourth segment came in the form of an encore: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, another of the shelved segments that was later adapted into the Bumble Boogie segment of the 1948 cartoon Melody Time.
To no one’s great surprise, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours seemed to be the most popular with the audience; Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring were truncated even more than the original film segments. The opening, Stokowski’s bloated arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, appeared to be the hardest for Mauceri and the orchestra to synch with the film; overall, however, they held together amazingly well throughout the evening.
The printed program ended with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, with the final segments accompanied (or, in the case of Waltz of the Flowers) overpowered by fireworks. I yield to no one in my admiration for the Souza Group’s pyrotechnic wizardry, fireworks do sell tickets, and much of the audience seemed to enjoy the aerial display thoroughly but if you were interested in the music (and the animation), forget it. On the other hand, there really isn’t a section that lends itself to fireworks with the possible exception of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite from Fantasia 2000. Even Walt couldn’t envision Fantasia being accompanied by fireworks at the Bowl in 1940.
• When I first saw this program’s Sunday start time listed at 7:30 p.m. start time, I wondered if it would be dark enough at the Bowl to make it work. The answer is yes.
• The often-changing hues of the Bowl’s iconic shell offered a colorful backdrop to the program although, ironically, it made me think of Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes, rather than Disney.
(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.