Dallas — It’s not often that music writers find themselves at concerts at 11 a.m. It’s equally rare that those concerts are populated by kids, many of them in costume, and their parents. But such was the case at the abbreviated, intermissionless screening of selections from Disney’s Fantasia on Saturday morning. This was part of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s family concert series, and what a great opportunity for kids. The family of five sitting next to me included Darrick Skuza, 7, who was attired in a Batman costume. He noted that he had seen Fantasia before, and was especially looking forward to “Mickey with the brooms.” He glanced knowingly at me and grinned when conductor Sarah Hicks announced Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” as the last selection on the program.
The Meyerson was full, noisy, and boisterous just before the first downbeat, and there were audible “ooohs” as the house lights went down. (The orchestra performed an expanded version of the program on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoon for all audiences.)
Many kids get their first exposure to classical music through cartoons: be honest, don’t some of you still hear Elmer Fudd singing “Kill da wabbit! Kill da wabbit!” every time you hear Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”? Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia is an even better introduction to major orchestral works—after all, there are no added lyrics to haunt listeners forever, and the animation is utterly enchanting. The program also included selections from Fantasia 2000, many of which were also visually striking, although the portrayal of Donald Duck as Noah with Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” as the backing track is just silly.
Fantasia has held its own for more than 75 years now. Even with lots of little ones alternately cooing and screaming in the background, I was brought nearly to tears at the sublime beauty of the hand-drawn animation. CGI is often ever so impressive, but thinking of all those animators creating each layer of each cel by hand is awe-inspiring. It was especially so on the Meyerson’s big screen, with the Dallas Symphony playing the soundtrack live.
A recent trend among symphony orchestras has been to show entire films with a backing soundtrack provided by the orchestra. The Dallas Symphony’s performance of West Side Story last season is just one example. A “smart podium” used by the conductor, with technology called “streamers and punches” that gives the conductor cues layered over a projection of the film, enables the precise timing needed. Read more about the technology and see some examples here. Rather than showing a complete film, though, conductor Hicks and the symphony played several excerpts from both Fantasia films. This was a bit disappointing—the entire 1940 film would have been thrilling in this format, while the iteration Saturday morning was a bit scattershot, and the other concerts in the series, while longer, followed the same premise of a selection here, a selection there.
The orchestra was in fine form, especially given the distractions posed by the audience. The program began with the opening of the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, with animation from Fantasia 2000. At the first iteration of the iconic four-note theme, the small boy in front of me pumped his fist and shouted, “Yaaah!” His mother quickly shushed him, which was rather a shame. There are few things in this world more fist-pump-worthy than Beethoven, and this little child knew it.
Although the orchestra cut the excerpt from Beethoven Symphony No. 6 for the family concert for reasons of length (and perhaps also because the female centaurs in the Fantasia animation appear nude, and the depiction of Bacchus and his revels might not be the most kid-appropriate), the excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, with animation from the 1940 Fantasia, and from Stravinsky’s Firebird, from Fantasia 2000, effectively compensated for the absence of the Beethoven.
Erin Hannigan on oboe and David Matthews on English horn had especially lovely moments in the “Arabian Dance” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, and Theodore Soluri’s bassoon solo in the “Berceuse” from Stravinsky’s Firebird was lyrical and gorgeous, even though it was a bit difficult to hear over a toddler’s meltdown. The animation for Firebird is rather scary, especially for a toddler, incorporating a woods nymph and her forest laid low by a forest fire personified as a snarling fire demon, as is the loud, sudden bass drum at the beginning of the “Infernal Dance.” Hicks, who was great with her young audience, speaking simply and briefly but not condescendingly, cautioned listeners that Firebird “is soft, then loud, so don’t be scared.”
Parents, sensibly, may not want to take their small children to regular classical concerts for fear of disturbing other audience members. These family concerts, however, are great introductions to live classical music for even the smallest arts patrons. They feature an “instrument petting zoo” before the concert—young Darrick, my seat-mate, excitedly told me that he had gotten to play a trombone, and had indeed made a sound—as well as other enticements. Children get to hear a superlative orchestra and watch (parts of) a classic Disney film on the big screen. If that’s not fist-pump-worthy, I don’t know what is.