Many composers have written pieces to make children (and adults) aware of the different instruments of the orchestra. Few have survived like Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” or Britten’s “A Guide to the Orchestra for Young People”.
Friday at the Rady Shell, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra gave the local premiere of a composition that could give these two war horses a hard time, at least for a few years.
“Fantastic Philharmonia: The Making of the Orchestra” by Mason Bates is a film accompanied by a live orchestra. Sometimes it almost looks like an orchestra piece accompanied by a film, so much the animation seems to evolve from the score.
The film juxtaposes long animated sequences with short live action scenes of individual musicians playing their instruments. The main character, an anthropomorphic assemblage of musical instrument parts, is nicknamed “The Sprite”, and he frequently interacts with the live footage.
‘Fantastic’ evokes Disney’s ‘Fantasia’, both in spirit and appearance. The opening section, with its moving lines and geometric shapes projected from those lines, is the descendant of the D minor Toccata and Fugue segment of “Fantasia”. The continuously scrolling tape on screen also hints at the “After You’ve Gone” segment of Disney’s “Make Mine Music.”
The string, wind, brass and percussion sections are color coded to help viewers identify the instruments. As Britten’s work does, “Philharmonia Fantastique” first examines entire sections, then delves into individual instruments.
Written and directed by Gary Rydstrom and animated by Jim Capobianco, “Philharmonia Fantastique” is technically astute, on visual par with anything out of Pixar or Disney.
Those familiar with Bates’ music will have an idea of what the score sounds like: easy-to-process, dazzlingly orchestrated, electronically enhanced harmonies with huge, powerful waves. Heard in conjunction with the images, it is a powerful experience.
The orchestra was conducted by Jason Seber, who seemed extremely comfortable with Bates’ music, as well as the other works on the program. The musicians responded to his direction with enthusiasm.
At Rady Shell’s concerts this year, the amplification has been erratic at times, but whoever ran the chart on Friday did a great job. The sounds were clean and the balances mimicked the playing of an acoustic orchestra.
Another work by Bates, “Soundcheck in C Major”, began the program. Commissioned by the San Diego Symphony, it was the first piece they performed at the Rady Shell opening concert last year. Bates took advantage of the room’s surround sound capabilities, so the music flows from the stage to the sides, to an impressive effect. At one point, it eerily mimicked the well-known glissando that preceded every THX movie in theaters in the 1980s. Bates was in the orchestra, playing beats on his laptop, and those in attendance applauded this opening heartily. fun.
The San Diego Symphony Orchestra’s annual performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’” followed. While they played with momentum, it was no match for a rock performance across the marina. I don’t understand why the Convention Center can’t put a decibel restriction on the bands there when the symphony is performing. Poor Rose Lombardo’s flute solo was barely audible in the finale.
The quiet sections of “Umoja: A Hymn to Unity” by Valerie Coleman were also trampled by the group. An expansion of a 20-year-old choral work, “Umoja” struck me as a pastiche of 80-year-old American neoclassicism. A composition claiming to celebrate unity and humanity should offer hope – a glimpse of a better future – rather than nostalgia.
Hertzog is a freelance writer.