Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra
Available on iTunes
How do you describe the epic sweep of Beethoven’s symphonies or the awe-inspiring sunrise in Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé? What happens when 80 musicians unite to breathe life into a composer’s vision? In many ways, orchestral music is impossible to define, the whole infinitely more magical than the sum of its parts. But explaining what goes on underneath the orchestral hood is arguably crucial to helping new generations discover classical music’s marvels. Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra sets out to do just that. Featuring an exhilarating score by US composer Mason Bates, Philharmonia Fantastique takes us through each section of the orchestra in the company of a magical Sprite who flies into its instruments’ inner workings, peeking inside a flute or falling into the bowels of a cello (“a curious, mercurial superhero—a little badass!” adds Bates). Astonishing animation gives the music its wings, guided by Jim Capobianco, whose credits include Pixar’s 2007 animated movie Ratatouille. Bates’ music, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Edwin Outwater, is full of ingenuity, exquisite orchestrations, and instant appeal. But it joins a small band—there are few composers who have successfully crafted music for educational purposes. In his 1936 “symphonic fairy tale” Peter and the Wolf, Prokofiev used characters to introduce children to various instruments, and not long after, in 1945, Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, written in response to a UK government call for music education films, revealed sectional colors and textures in a set of variations on a theme by Purcell. For Bates, it was time for a different way to explore the orchestra. “I was thinking that we needed a new guide,” he tells Apple Music, “and I felt that there was an interesting angle we could explore, which was the making of the orchestra. How these instruments work. A creative technology angle. Maybe that’s influenced by the fact that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and am interested in how technology can be used in creative ways. After all, I wrote an opera about Steve Jobs!” One of Bates’ concerns was that the film should stay the course—Disney’s animated movie Fantasia, which brought Stravinsky, Bach, and Beethoven to young children, is a product of its time, while Britten’s Young Person’s Guide is played today as purely a concert piece. To solve this problem, Capobianco decided that Philharmonia Fantastique’s animation should adopt a dynamic 1950s feel. “Jim knew we wanted something that not only lasted, but that would work for audiences used to $200 million animation budgets,” says Bates. “He suggested something informed by the flat textural world of mid-century French animation.” Bates’ score plays with this vintage world and propels the action with music of startling variety. Henry Mancini-esque jazz lends the woodwind a mysteriousness, while Hollywood fanfares give a luster to the brass. Percussion instruments from xylophone to timpani explode in virtuosic flurries. Each section is rendered differently. But, says Bates, “By creating different, memorable themes, I wanted to have this dramatic tension towards the end that would bring them together.” In the final minutes, the Sprite spies a new possibility. Instruments and sections are not meant to exist in isolation but in glorious harmony. Strings and percussion exchange rhythms, woodwind and brass mirror each other, and the orchestra starts to gel. Our Sprite realizes that it’s not just exploring music—it is music. Bates hopes that the film will resonate with children and adults of all ages. “We’re always trying to find ways to excite everyone about this Eighth Wonder of the World,” he says. “The orchestra is this phenomenal real-time collaboration of all these technologies. And I felt that to do that in a way that was exuberant and entertaining was the way to go. I want to engage people and remind them just how cool this medium is.”