When Walt Disney released “Fantasia” in 1940, the film revolutionized sound quality so futuristically that multichannel stereophonic “Fantasound” remained state of the art until Dolby and surround sound emerged decades later. Disney’s nephew Roy took advantage of those advances in “Fantasia 2000,” the long-awaited sequel.
Today, the only way to improve the “Fantasia” soundtrack acoustically is for an orchestra to perform it live.
“Disney ‘Fantasia’ Live in Concert,” Sunday, Feb. 21, at Tilles Center, features an orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony and Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in front of an HD screen projecting the movies’ iconic images of unicorns, dancing hippos and, yes, Mickey Mouse.
The Czech National Symphony Orchestra, with Ted Sperling conducting, first performed “Fantasia” at the Prague Proms in June. Sperling later conducted it with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as part of the “CSO Goes to the Movies” outdoor series. Now the Czech orchestra is taking symphonic cinema on a North American tour that brings it to Long Island.
“It’s a bit of a challenge,” says Sperling, who won a Tony for best orchestration with “Light in the Piazza.” The musicians, with their backs to the screen, rely exclusively on the conductor. “I’m in charge of keeping it together,” he says. “It’s a little different than other live performances. You’ve got to get it right with the animation or you’ll be laughed out of the hall.”
“Fantasia” was just the third feature film in the Disney canon — after “Snow White” and “Pinnochio.” Disney, who considered himself an appreciator of classic music rather than an aficionado, sought to educate himself as well as his audience. He hired one of the foremost musical directors of his time, Leopold Stokowski, to conduct the “Fantasia” orchestra.
Reviews were almost universally glowing. But some music critics complained that mixing classical music with visual images robbed the composer of his power to stoke imagination.
“You can decide to be snob,” Sperling says. “But I see it as an opportunity for those who may not otherwise be exposed to classical music. Then they’ll have many opportunities to hear it in a different context.”
The live concert presents musical selections and scenes from both “Fantasia” movies — “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” being the only one common to both. (Walt Disney saw it as a way to boost Mickey’s sagging popularity.) Other selections include “The Nutcracker” (the wiggling “Chinese Dance” mushrooms were patterned after the Three Stooges), “Dance of the Hours” and “Pastoral” — all from the 1940 “Fantasia.” Beethoven’s Fifth, Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” and Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” (starring Donald Duck) are from the sequel. As a bonus, the orchestra accompanies animation created for Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” which didn’t make the cut.
“When I first conducted ‘Fantasia’ live, I said to myself, ‘I wish I’d brought my kids,’ ” Sperling says.
Sunday’s matinee may be your best chance to bring yours.