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Monday, May 23, 2016

Concert Review: Bring on the Dancing Hippos

The New York Philharmonic plays Fantasia.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Hyacinth Hippo and Ben Ali Gator dance a pas de deux in Fantasia.
Image © 1940 The Walt Disney Company.
Outreach is vital for a great orchestra's survival. This weekend, the New York Philharmonic may have won itself a new and younger generation of concert-goers with its presentation on Friday and Saturday of three concerts featuring clips from the Disney films Fantasia and Fantasia 2000, accompanied by the full might if the orchestra under the baton of assistant conductor Joshua Gerstein. Saturday's evening concert, starting at a family-friendly 7pm had an audience including current  New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert.

The concert ignored the films’ running order and the awkward interstitial segments in favor of a two-part, curated format introduced amiably by the conductor. The program cherry-picked eight clips from both of these remarkable films. Adding interest was the pronounced difference between two different generations of Disney animation styles, with the modern clips (with one exception) proving unwieldy next to the eloquent work by Walt himself and his 1940s team. 

The concert opened with Beethoven: the bats vs butterflies battle (set to the Allegro con brio of the Fifth Symphony) and the mythic Greek landscapes of the Pastorale (with only the last three movements included, presumably for reasons of time.) The four movements were crisply played, although Mr. Gerstein’s leadership of the orchestra was hampered by the need to keep tempos as close as possible to theorizing like conductors of the two Fantasia films: Leopold Stokowski in the original and James Levine in the sequel.

Next up: selected dances from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, presented as a cycle of life amidst insects, flowers and glittering, Tinkerbell-like fairies. On the big screen, the artistic influence on Disney’s animation was palpable, particularly the impressionist images of painters like Monet. The essay in Impressionism continue used with the next clip, an exquisitely played Clair de lune that featured a mated pair of Florida egrets. This is a sequence that was planned but cut from the original film; it has now been beautifully restored.

The first half ended with Fantasia’s most famous sequence, (and the only one that was present in both versions of the symphonic spectacle) The Sorcerer’s Apprentice starring one Mickey Mouse. The rodent's on-screen shenanigans were accompanied by a powerful, hard-chargng performance by the Philharmonic, with Mr. Gersten less worried about mimicking his predecessors and just letting the orchestra rip.

The second half kicked off with that great one-hit wonder: the Dance of the Hours from Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda. The capering ostriches, led by that grande dame de ballet Madame Upanova danced with graceful hippopotami, eager elephants and a sextet of love-hungry crocodiles in a bizarre ballet that made the audience burst into roars of laughter. The zoological  theme continued with four Pomp and Circumstance featuring Donald Duck as a put-upon and stepped-upon assistant to the biblical Noah, helping that Old Testament figure manage his Ark. Here, the choral  element (pompous on the original soundtrack and featuring awarbling vocalise by Kathleen Battle) was thankfully excised.

The concert ended with excerpts from the 1919 version of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, reimagined here as a battle of wills between two natural forces, a rebellious woodland Sprite and a raging volcano, animated as the titular Firebird in one of the most thrilling and terrifying sequences ever to spring from Disney's storyboards. This sequence, superbly played by the Philharmonic and glorious in its telling of growth, destruction and rebirth, left the audience stunned. However they applauded enough to earn a short encore, the finale of Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals, asking the age-old question: “What happens when you give a yo-yo to a flock of flamingoes?"

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.