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Score one for Disney, in ambition at least

Fantasia this isn't, but there was fantasy at play if Disney - and Michael Eisner - hoped the gargantuan opus he conceived would measure up to a new millennium.

By JOHN FLEMING

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 1999


NEW YORK -- Ah, the millennium. So much cultural weight is riding on it.

Few things connected with the great event are more fraught with significance than the pair of "millennium symphonies" commissioned by the Walt Disney Co.

Well, I have heard the music of the millennium, and I am sorry to say that it is loud, long and pretentious. And it takes a lot of musicians. A symphony orchestra of more than a hundred players, including six saxophones, rock guitar and bass and synthesizer. Men's and women's choruses. A boys' choir. A quartet of vocal soloists.

Those were the forces that overflowed the stage of Avery Fisher Hall this month when the New York Philharmonic offered up the premieres of Aaron Jay Kernis' Garden of Light and Michael Torke's Four Seasons, conducted by Kurt Masur. Both are choral symphonies, with elaborate texts written more or less to order from an idea of Disney's chief executive, Michael Eisner.

Conceived on a smaller scale, the symphonies might have succeeded, but here they came across as grandiose. This is one case where more was less.

Perhaps you can blame it on Mahler, the fin de siecle Viennese conductor and composer whose Eighth Symphony is called the "Symphony of a Thousand" because it features that many instrumentalists, vocal soloists and choristers.

Eisner was inspired by a 1995 performance of Mahler's gargantuan symphony he attended at Carnegie Hall, with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Robert Shaw. "All those voices, the horns, the concluding brass finale, the three endings, the spectacle," he told the Los Angeles Times, remembering what he thought to himself at the time:

"This symphony is totally a Disney-type production."

So Eisner did what any Hollywood mogul does when the muse strikes: He typed out a treatment for a symphonic story line on his laptop during a cross-country plane trip. "A few days later, we made the formal decision to usher in the third millennium with a symphony," he wrote in the glossy program booklet handed out to concertgoers.

Eisner's 20-page treatment -- when it was being considered as a possible movie, it was turned into 30 feet of storyboards by Disney artists -- followed a family through the last 50 years. It started with the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.

"I wanted a big opening," he said. "I didn't want to sit there for an hour waiting for something to happen."

Eisner also suggested that the music could have a melody or two -- not a given for modern-day composers. But when the commissions were made, the only string that came with the deal was a stipulation that the compositions had to include a children's chorus.

Disney also wanted to share the copyright to the symphonies and control over who performed them, not the usual arrangement in the classical music business. The company had an eye on possible spinoffs. There was talk of having children's choirs around the world sing excerpts simultaneously on New Year's 2001 or using portions for a Millennium Parade at Disneyland.

Certainly, Disney's decision to put some of its money into classical music was admirable, and not without precedent in the company's history. Millions of kids were introduced to The Rite of Spring, The Sorcerer's Apprentice and other music through Fantasia. A much-anticipated remake of the animated clasic is being released in December.

Disney listened to 127 composers before choosing Torke and Kernis. Both came to the project with all the right entries on their resumes. They're young hotshots (under 40) with orchestras lined up to perform their work. Kernis was awarded the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for his String Quartet No. 2. Torke's opera Strawberry Fields is one part of the trilogy Central Park that premieres this season at New York City Opera and will be aired on public television.

But the music that resulted from the Disney CEO's brainstorm was overblown and strangely inert, fatally hobbled by the high stakes and expectations that came with the commission. Reportedly, the job was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees to the composers.

Part of the problem had to do with their librettos, especially the one for Garden of Light, but not because Kernis felt beholden to Eisner's treatment. In fact, he rejected it almost entirely, choosing instead to cover a vast canvas of Big Ideas in the 40-minute, two-movement work. His subject matter ranged from the Big Bang to the discovery of fire to the Holocaust.

Kernis started out collaborating with Menna Elfyn, a Welsh poet, but when they had a falling out, the composer switched writers in midstream. He brought in playwright David Simpatico to finish the work.

Both Elfyn and Simpatico are credited for the poetic text, which abounds in moon-eyed sentimentality. A typical line was sung by Anthony Dean Griffey, the tenor soloist: "My heart is ablaze with Awareness for the Oneness of Man and the Universe."

Kernis' score was positively Straussian (Richard Strauss, that is) in its sonic splendor, and the writing for the women of the New York Choral Artists was nicely tuneful. But the work never took flight, never got beyond a surprisingly simple conception for the "almost ridiculously large orchestra," as the composer put it in an interview.

There was polite applause as Kernis and Simpatico took their bows, but the inescapable impression was of a performance that had just laid an egg.

Four Seasons, which took up the second half of the program, was better. For one thing, Torke had been teamed up (by Disney) with an experienced collaborator, Philip Littell, who has done the librettos for a number of successful operas, including Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire last year.

Torke and Littell largely went along with the Eisner treatment, recounting recent American history in a series of musical snapshots, including the Korean War, school desegregation in Little Rock, Don Larsen's perfect game in the World Series, American Bandstand, the summer of love and so on.

Compared with the Kernis symphony, Four Seasons drew a more engaged performance from the singers. Baritone Jubilant Sykes gave a passionate solo as a veteran returning from Korea: "I came home and no one knew that I'd been gone."

Under Masur, the New York Philharmonic played brilliantly, with plush, jazzy brass and a driving rhythm section.

Torke's hourlong "symphonic oratorio," as he called it, was reminiscent of the choral works of Poulenc, with catchy melodies and a theatrical momentum. But there was something insubstantial about the intricately textured music, a lightweight brightness that never got beneath the sparkling surface.

The finale had the boys' choir running down the aisles to take the stage and sing the playground chant, "Nah nah nahnah nah."

It was cute -- and cloying. Pure Disney.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.