Orchestra plays "Fantasia' at the Mann

The Orchestra's back, sort of

Now batting for Yehudi Menuhin....
Now batting for Yehudi Menuhin....

The Philadelphia Orchestra is back in town and in residency at its traditional summer home, the Mann Music Center. So all is right in the world. Or is it?

This summer's Mann season includes 36 attractions, yet the Philadelphia Orchestra appears in only six of these, some of which are pop or Broadway programs.

This is far from the relationship of the past 80 years. At the Robin Hood Dell on the eastern side of the Schuylkill River from 1930 through 1976, and since then at the Mann on the river's western shore, the concerts were almost entirely Classical. For much of that time the Orchestra's musicians performed four nights a week, usually for eight weeks, under Stokowski, Ormandy and big name conductors from around the world.

It was at the Dell that I first saw and heard conductors like Fritz Reiner, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Pierre Monteux, William Steinberg and the young Leonard Bernstein, as well soloists like Ezio Pinza, Beverly Sills, Jose Iturbi, Yehudi Menuhin and Artur Rubinstein.

"'Who's that lady?'

When the operation's finances became shaky in 1948, the philanthropist Fredric R. Mann organized the Friends of the Dell, a hundred donors whose contributions were matched by the city, and concerts resumed with free admission for most of the audience. The classical repertory and the Philadelphia Orchestra's involvement continued. The Dell and then the Mann both served as warm-weather centers of American classical music.

Fred Mann ran the Mann series until his death in 1987. His widow attended concerts regularly after that. When I asked Silvia Mann why she schlepped out there from her comfortable home on Rittenhouse Square, she replied, "So people will point toward me and say "'Who's that old lady with orange hair?' and someone will tell them who my husband was, and that's how I keep Fred's memory alive."

Now that memory seems to be on life-support. Recent changes in the Mann's programming were applauded by Philadelphia Weekly's Bill Chenevert for "taking the venue from its older-demo, cultural cliquishness to a more modern mindset... proving that the Mann is really hitting its stride."

Clearly, the Mann's managers seek a young, urban demographic. But by so doing, they are losing those who love traditional music and theater. Almost none of my friends and neighbors attend any more, even the best programs.

Disney's plan

The first Philadelphia Orchestra program this summer was particularly fine. Most of the music from the film Fantasia was performed live by the Orchestra. The musicians were accompanied by clips from the 1940 Disney film, digitally restored and projected on a large screen over the stage.

For a change of pace, one segment cut from the original film— Debussy's Clair de Lune— was added, along with two compositions that were animated by the Disney folks 60 years later for Fantasia 2000, where the Chicago Symphony was conducted by James Levine.

Walt Disney and Stokowski originally hoped to keep the film in theaters for an extended run and add different pieces of music and shuffle things around periodically. But the film didn't make enough money to convince exhibitors to keep it in repertory for very long. The play list for this concert, finally, was in tune with the creators' intentions.

Conductor's challenge

Cristian Macelaru conducted the Orchestra, bringing out almost all of the sonic riches in the music (although he didn't utilize Stokowski's technique of "free" bowing, or overlapping bowing, which gave the Orchestra its special sound back when Stoky was its leader).

Macelaru deftly handled the task of synchronizing his players with the visual images that continually flashed before him. In 1940, Stokowski had recorded his music first, so that Disney animators had to tailor their art to match him; by contrast, Macelaru had to follow what was on the screen.

It was interesting to observe the muted shades of brown and blue in Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which was created only a year before work began on the main parts of Fantasia. This artistry contrasted with the parts of the film that came later, such as Beethoven's Pastorale Symphony and Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours, which utilized bright psychedelic colors. The stunningly vivid pinks and purples of the Disney animators were way ahead of their time.

The one selection that used no film was Stokowski's orchestration of Bach's Toccata and Fugue, apparently to focus everyone's attention to the music rather than to the pictures.

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