Walt Disney’s Fantasia

Now why didn't anyone think of this before? When the Hollywood Bowl began showing films with live music, "Fantasia" should have been priority No. 1, given the Bowl's long, enviably rich classical-music tradition. Yet only in the last year of John Mauceri's 16-season tenure with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra did the Bowl get around to Walt Disney's daring 1940 fusion of animation with classical music.

Now why didn’t anyone think of this before? When the Hollywood Bowl began showing films with live music, “Fantasia” should have been priority No. 1, given the Bowl’s long, enviably rich classical-music tradition. Yet only in the last year of John Mauceri’s 16-season tenure with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra did the Bowl get around to Walt Disney’s daring 1940 fusion of animation with classical music. Weekend perfs marked the first time “Fantasia” has been done live in North America and only the second time anywhere. Much of the evening was thrilling, some revelatory, some inappropriate, but in all, it amounted to one of Mauceri’s finest hours here.

Fittingly, Mauceri was a student of the fabled Leopold Stokowski, Disney’s co-conspirator and conductor of the project, who also happened to be the music director of the original Hollywood Bowl Symphony in the 1940s. The Bowl even built a three-tiered, circular podium for Mauceri — much like Stokowski’s in the film.

Conducting along with the film meant being confined to a musical straitjacket, having to follow Stokowski’s eccentric tempo fluctuations on the fly, observing his numerous cuts in the scores, keeping the orchestra locked into the images onscreen. Yet the ever-personable Mauceri did so with amazing aplomb and precision, although there were a few near train wrecks in the rhythmically difficult lurchings of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

The heavily reverbed, tubby sound seemed as if it had been deliberately EQ-ed to resemble the original ancient Stokowski soundtrack, adding to the illusion of authenticity. The prints, shown on gigantic screens, were pristine — and in certain segments, particularly the wondrous abstract art set to J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, the fusion of live music and color was overwhelmingly powerful.

Having covered most of “Fantasia’s” segments — the entire Bach, Tchaikovsky, Ponchielli and Dukas sequences as well as edited slices of Beethoven and Stravinsky, omitting only the shotgun Mussorgsky/Schubert medley — Mauceri went the extra mile to include outtakes and related projects. The moody blue bayou sequence set to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and the mesmerizing impressionistic storyboards for Sibelius’ “The Swan of Tuonela” were both released in “The Fantasia Anthology” DVD box in 2000, so they weren’t exactly unknown, but it was good to see them included.

Apart from the “Fantasia” project, the Bowl Orchestra performed Disney’s aborted 1946 collaboration with Salvador Dali, “Destino,” which combined surreal sequences with awful, cloying music by Armando Dominguez.

“Fantasia” remains an ambivalent fascination — the visionary shafts of genius marred now and then by cornball lapses of taste, all rolled into one inseparable package. Perhaps acting in that spirit, the Bowl put on a rather gratuitous closing fireworks display that defaced the exquisite animation and music of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” Suite with noisy visual and sonic graffiti. But like Disney, the Bowl knew its audience; the sold-out Friday night crowd loved it.

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Walt Disney's Fantasia

Hollywood Bowl, 17,416 seats, $111 top

Production: Presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. Performers: The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by John Mauceri. Reviewed Aug. 18, 2006. Closed Aug. 19.

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