Recent Press Coverage of Mason Bates’s GRAMMY-winning ‘Philharmonia Fantastique’
An Orchestral Odyssey
In the footsteps of Prokofiev and Britten, with assistance from a sprite and an A-list team, American composer Mason Bates has created a new audiovisual guide to the orchestra; he explains all to Tom Stewart.
‘Animation is the perfect medium for showing people the way the orchestra works,’ says Bates. ‘There’s so much technology involved – what happens when you push down the valve on a tuba, or press the pedal on a timpani? I had to think very carefully about how to show all this in the music at the same time as making sure everything still made musical sense.’
The orchestra is a complex being that can take a little explaining for the uninitiated. The two best known works that do this are Prokofiev’s 1936 Peter and the Wolf and A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which Britten wrote in the months immediately following World War II. In between came Fantasia, Walt Disney’s 1940 animated feature that Brough composers from Bach to Mussorgsky to the attention of the cartoon-watching public. All three have endured, but the Prokofiev in particular is regularly re-recorded with new celebrity narrators…Like Fantasia (and unlike the others), Philharmonia Fantastique is a wordless work that relies on the animation, live-action shots of players and the score itself to tell the story. The music erupts from a glittering, primordial soup of sound, the players racing up and down the harmonic series and, on screen, a stave stretching out ahead of the audience like the famous opening of the Star Wars films.
Bates’s music is slick and shiny – it’s an exciting, action-packed score with nothing to scare anyone off and plenty to keep young ears engaged.
Head of the Class
By Hannah Edgar
Orchestras that present educational programming and concerts for young people and families are embracing multimedia experiments, commissioning new music, engaging bilingual communities, and even inviting kids up to the podium to conduct. New initiatives are reimagining a bright future for the genre—and for next-gen music lovers.
Fantasias for a New Millennium
The pandemic forced classical music to bridge an intrinsic antagonism: that between stage and screen. In some pedagogical and arts spaces, those now-blurred lines can be treated as anathema to orchestras’ mission. The most high-profile educational initiatives to come out of the COVID era, however, treat the stage/screen convergence and surge in streaming less as a Pandora’s box and more an opportunity to think outside the box.
Take Philharmonia Fantastique, Mason Bates’s Grammy-winning “concerto for orchestra and animated film.” Developed in collaboration with veteran filmmakers Gary Rydstrom (Skywalker Sound, Pixar) and Jim Capobianco (Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, Fantasia 2000), the film explores timbre and instrument mechanics through the eyes of a curious, sprite-like protagonist. John Williams—no slouch when it comes to composing for film—has praised the piece, saying “in the art of marrying music with animation, Philharmonia Fantastique is the biggest step forward since Fantasia itself.”
Like that predecessor, Philharmonia Fantastique is a delightful romp, handsomely animated, and, to musical initiates, sneakily edifying. Each instrument family—strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion—is represented by a color, corresponding to the live action onscreen and helping listeners internalize their sounds, like a visual leitmotif. Philharmonia Fantastique gets more sophisticated from there: Capobianco’s animations and Rydstrom’s cinematographic sleights of hand bring viewers inside instruments, from the womblike body of a cello to a trumpet’s labyrinth of valves and pistons. In one scene, the Sprite delicately dances on specific points on a string; right on cue, the orchestra sounds out the corresponding harmonics. The harmonic series has rarely been so charming.
That sophistication was the creative team’s plan from the beginning. Buoyed by a $1 million budget—huge by classical music standards, scrawny for a motion picture—the team wanted to ensure Philharmonia Fantastique had a life beyond the youth concert pigeonhole. “This piece is a serious endeavor, in the vein of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges or Mother Goose Suite, which use vivid orchestration to conjure a world of wonder,” Bates says. “It’s really important to us that it reach people of all backgrounds and ages.”
Philharmonia Fantastique was programmed by most of its co-commissioners last season and is sweeping through multiple American orchestras, who play the score live alongside the film. At many of those presenters, Philharmonia Fantastique has been programmed on typical subscription concerts rather than on youth programs, slotting it—per its subtitle—in the concerto spot of an evening-length concert. That signals another possible strategy: incorporating educational repertoire into subscription concerts, rather than siloing it on a different series. “I don’t think there was a day where we approached [the film] like, ‘How do we make this for kids?’ It was always about appealing to a broad audience and bringing in people to hear the symphony again,” Capobianco says.