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Arts: Classical: Return of the Sorcerer's Apprentice

Fantasia 2000 Royal Albert Hall London
TAKE A series of celestial columns and sky-bound waterfalls, add cloud formations and a growing swarm of abstract butterflies, and what do you think of? The truncated first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, perhaps? Personally speaking, it wouldn't have occurred to me, though it did to Disney's art director Pixote Hunt. Classical music's most famous victory motif opens Fantasia 2000 much as Bach's ubiquitous Toccata and Fugue in D minor had done for Walt's ground-breaking original.

In those days, Leopold Stokowski conducted, but at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday night James Levine stepped into Stokowski's shoes, and the Philharmonia replaced the Philadelphia. That was for the live event. The film soundtrack features the Chicago Symphony (save for Mickey Mouse and The Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence which sticks to Stokowski's original) and the CD of the film hops between London and Chicago.

"Almost an art form" is how Roy Disney (Walt's nephew) described the animation process that gave birth to the original Fantasia back in 1940.

The new show is rather different. I first saw it a week or so earlier on the skyscraper screen of London's Imax, where it looked fabulous. The Royal Albert Hall "experience" used a conventional screen and traded the crackle and thunder of the real soundtrack for a cough-infested live concert. Levine directed the Philharmonia from a score and a video auto-cue. Peering down from the circle, I could see a visual metronome pulse like a monitored heartbeat. The playing was mostly spot-on, a real achievement although, to be honest, once the visuals started, you quite forgot that the orchestra was there.

Disney's original idea was to make a fresh version of Fantasia every year. The new crew follow his example with story-lines that are just as cute and cuddly as before though, in my view, the "art" element has stepped down a rung or two. Comparing Mickey Mouse with a hapless bunch of characters from Depression-hit Manhattan (set to Rhapsody in Blue) reveals, in the earlier film, a superior use of shadow and what I can only call visual rhetoric, though, to be fair, Dukas' graphic tone poem must have been a lot easier to follow than Gershwin's mini-concerto. The Rhapsody is immensely clever, sometimes funny, and rather reliant on cartoon cliche.

Indeed, the new directors are particularly hot on formula. Mummy and daddy whale hover patiently while their big-eyed baby finds his (or her) way out of a hollow iceberg ("A Whale of a Tale", set to Respighi); the featured tin soldier in "A Musical Fairy Tale" hobbles around on one leg (set to part of Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto), and there are countless other instances where young heartstrings are carefully manipulated.

Disney's original made a rather awkward pre-Jurassic Park narrative on the death of the dinosaurs out of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, whereas Fantasia 2000 takes The Firebird (or at least part of it) as the starting point for a vastly superior tale of destruction and rebirth.

Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance marches - four of them, inventively re- arranged by Peter Schickele - take on a new role in a familiar venue as Noah summons all living creatures to his Ark, and flamingos toy with yo-yos to the finale ofSaint-Saens' The Carnival of the Animals.

In the hall, Yefim Bronfman played Shostakovich and Ralph Grierson the Gershwin. The two combined very effectively for Saint-Saens. But who was watching? Initial applause for the orchestra was alarmingly short lived. Suddenly, I thought of the silent screen and avenues of musical employment that were lost when "the talkies" arrived in the late Twenties. Could it be that in music, as in other areas, the big screen has numbed us to aspects of reality? Maybe. But do make sure to see Fantasia 2000 at Imax. It's pretty spectacular.

Rob Cowan