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Symphony Shows Power with Fantasia

Nov. 8, 2014

11/10/14 Post Crescent, James Chaudoir

Saturday evening's performance by the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra offered its audience a true multimedia experience. It's not every day that one gets to attend a movie with a live soundtrack. "Disney's Fantasia - Live in Concert" offered that, and more.

Time was, before "talkies," that movies were accompanied by a piano, or theater organ in the more up-scale houses, that would set the tone of the film. Through the improvisatory skills of the player, all of the emotions captured on screen would be brought to life through music, to the delight of the viewers.

Fast rewind to 1940 and the release of Disney's "Fantasia"; here we find a technical milestone for its day. The film still has no dialogue, but rather, a series of animated features masterfully synchronized with music from beginning to end … a fantasy concert.

An additional aspect of this is the ability of showing the film with a live orchestra replacing the recorded soundtrack. Mastering this does not happen, however, without a fair amount of "extras" for the musicians.

One couldn't help but notice all of the "extra" gear conductor Brian Groner needed to get through each piece, starting with the head set which surely was playing a metronomic "click" track, and including the video monitor in front of his podium, which not only showed the animation, but also a flashing beat pattern, and timer, among other features.

When working with film, timing, and by that one means timing to the second, and fraction thereof, is vital so as to keep audio and visual elements in sync. In all, with only the occasional glitch, this was done quite well.

One cannot underestimate the importance, and difficulty, of the orchestra's role in a performance such as this. It is too easy for one to let the "visual" aspect of the event take over, and swiftly delegate the music's role to that of, "background." The beauty of this film is that the music is the feature upon which the animations are based, thus, the music can never be "background."
That being said, the program at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center was wonderfully played, both musically and technically.

The concert featured selected scenes from both the original 1940 "Fantasia" and "Fantasia 2000," with music excerpted from the standard concert literature.

The first piece heard was a short excerpt from the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Immediately the audience was made aware of the synchronization of the visual animation and the role of the orchestra.
Beethoven's role continued into the next scene, with excerpts from his Sixth Symphony, "Pastoral." This more extended scene featured the music of movements 3: "Merry Gathering of Country Folk," 4: "Thunderstorm," and 5: "Pastoral, Happy and Thankful Feelings after the Storm." The animated story was closely linked with Beethoven's musical program.

Excerpts from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" were cleverly used for the following scene. Selections heard were Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Chinese Dance, Dance of the Flutes, Arabian Dance, Russian Dance, and finally, Waltz of the Flowers.

An orchestration of Debussy's "Claire de Lune" came next, an animation of two cranes in a swamp environment.

The program's first half concluded with an excerpt from Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, taken from "Fantasia 2000." The animation was as powerful as the music, which was expertly played by the orchestra.

Four scenes were presented in the second half of the program, beginning with "Dance of the Hours" from Amilcare Ponchielli's opera "La Gioconda." One couldn't help but crack a smile at dancing ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators.

Perhaps the most well known scene from Fantasia may be Mickey Mouse's role as "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," composed by Paul Dukas. This performance was made all the more enjoyable with the live orchestra.
The remaining two scenes were taken from "Fantasia 2000," the first a curious re-telling of the story of the flood featuring excerpts from Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance marches, and last an imaginative animation set to excerpts from Respighi's Pines of Rome. This scene used the opening of the first movement, "The Pines of the Villa Borghese" and the dramatic ending of the fourth movement, "The Pines of the Appian Way." The orchestra was put to the test with Respighi's music, and fared extremely well.

A short encore featuring Saint-Saëns' "Hens and Roosters" from his Carnival of the Animals brought the program to a close.

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