It was once customary to catch a cartoon before the main feature when you went to the movies. But this summer, the Minnesota Orchestra served cartoons for dessert.
"Summer at Orchestra Hall" concluded over the weekend with conductor Sarah Hicks leading the orchestra with music from the Disney animated features "Fantasia" and "Fantasia 2000," while excerpts from those films shone above them. Each "Fantasia" has been a child's potential portal into classical music, with brief animated narratives set to beloved works from the canon.
On Sunday afternoon, the orchestra closed a particularly eventful summer festival that featured a farewell to one music director (Osmo Vänskä) and the introduction of another (Thomas Søndergård) with a program that proved musically strong if a little uneven in cartoon content. At its best, it was an inspiring convergence of two art forms, the kind of event that Walt Disney dreamed of when he proposed "Fantasia" back in the late 1930s.
Hicks and the orchestra did some fine work with the pieces selected for this smorgasbord of segments from the two films. Having just performed Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in recent weeks, movements from those works sounded particularly crisp and exciting Sunday.
The third through fifth movements of the composer's "Pastoral" Symphony proved thrilling, particularly during the thunderstorm sequence with timpanist Jason Arkis sending a surge through the hall with each lightning bolt hammered by the cartoon's celestial smithy. The original 1940 conductor, Leopold Stokowski, set some brisk tempos, but the orchestra executed them admirably.
Similarly inspiring was the finale from "Fantasia 2000," a version of Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite in which the spirit of spring decks the countryside in green before awakening a volcanic spirit with a frightening fortissimo jolt. After suffering its fiery wrath, she eventually experienced a rebirth with the guidance of a galloping elk and Matt Wilson's heart-filling French horn solo.
The presentation's comedic peak came with the uproarious parody of classical ballet from the original "Fantasia," set to Amilcare Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours." Alas, the orchestra got out of sync with the animation early on — and the on-screen movement is designed to be quite precisely timed to the music — but closed the gap before the hilarious pas de deux involving a romantic alligator and a tutu-clad hippo.
However, there were other segments that left me wondering why the Disney folks had chosen them. We certainly hear enough of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" Suite come Christmas time, and surely an Asian-American in their employ must have alerted them to the problematic nature of the 1940 film's dance of the Chinese mushrooms. And there's a reason that herons flying over a moonlit lake to a not very interesting arrangement of Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune" was left on the cutting room floor of the original "Fantasia": It's dull.
While I understand that a piano soloist would have introduced an added degree of difficulty to staying in sync with the film, the best scene in "Fantasia 2000" was the Al Hirschfeld-inspired take on George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." However that wasn't here, nor was the original's pulse-quickening prehistoric drama set to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."
But the presentation included the cartoon around which the original "Fantasia" was built — Mickey Mouse's star turn to Paul Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" — as well as Donald Duck stepping into the "Noah's Ark" story for a setting of Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance."
Created 60 years apart, the two cartoons showed how tastes have changed over the generations, frenetic action elbowing aside the elegance of old.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.