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Music Film: Bates Meets Disney and Britten in Philharmonia Fantastique

"In order to show you how a big symphony orchestra is put together, Benjamin Britten has written a big piece of music...Which is made up of smaller pieces...That show you all the separate parts of the orchestra," says the narrator of the composer's 1945 work, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

An admirable feat, but filmmaker Walt Disney beat Britten to the punch with his iconic 1940 animated masterpiece, Fantasia. Subtitled an "animated musical anthology," more than showing the instruments of the orchestra, the film uses well-known classical pieces to stimulate the imagination of both young people and grownups.

Bay Area composer Mason Bates (/san-francisco/article/BWW-Interview-Mercury-Souls-Mason-Bates-Merges-Classical-with-Electronic-Music-20150918) has brought this concept into the 21st century with brilliance and aplomb in his new animated film released by Platoon, Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra. The film was produced by Alex D. da Silva & Mason Bates, executive producers Jody Allen, Rocky Collins, Ruth Johnston & Mary Pat Buerkle, and recorded at Orchestra Hall with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Mason Bates, Skywalker Sound

The creative unit supporting Bates is dazzling. Multi-Oscar and BAFTA-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom of LucasFilm and Skywalker Sound directed and co-wrote the story with Bates. They collaborated with Oscar-nominated animation writer and director Jim Capobianco. The soundtrack is performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the top five in the US, conducted by Edwin Outwater. Definitely an A-team.

Bates, Rydstrom, Capobianco

The film combines animation and live action and literally glows from within and without; and, not surprisingly, has been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Engineered Classical Album.

Review: PHILHARMONIA FANTASTIQUE "Creating a new 'guide to the orchestra' was an incredibly inspiring and challenging project," says Bates, whose goal was to "showcase the magical wonders of the orchestra" in an innovative way: a "marriage of technology and art," states Rydstrom.

The film has accomplished its mission in spades. It is groundbreaking; a state-of-the-art, pioneering, inventive, and thoroughly modern piece of musical and technological filmmaking. Hinted at by an initial animated display of color, the categories of instruments are illustrated with eye-opening, Scriabin-like color-coding: green for strings, blue for woodwinds, red for percussion, yellow for brass. A charming, animated magical Sprite, created with brightly colored components representing different parts of instruments, interacts à la Mickey Mouse with the conductor and onstage musicians and, Mickey-like, tries its hand at conducting.

Review: PHILHARMONIA FANTASTIQUE The many-hued character serves as a guide, pointing out the names and appearances of the orchestral instruments, playing lush examples of their sounds and treating viewers to startling visuals of these apparatuses from the inside out. High-definition special effects cameras with high-tech probe lenses follow the Sprite, peeking inside a flute and cello, and demonstrating the mechanics of the keys and valves of the bassoon and the brass. Even Disney didn't show the workings of instruments from this perspective. It is a technique that mesmerizes and is sure to bring smiles to the faces of young and old alike. (An interactive guide can be found at

Review: PHILHARMONIA FANTASTIQUE Bates has created music that melds classical with jazz and electronic elements: melodically spirited and rhythmically fascinating. Especially winning is the combination of woodwinds and percussion that positively sparkles, utilizing the best, most appealing characteristics of the individual instruments. "Chicago's Best" perform the piece with an astounding level of virtuosity, both individually and as an ensemble.

The list of other renowned orchestras that will perform the work over the coming months reads like a Who's Who of the greatest ensembles in the US and in Europe. There's no doubt that Fantastique fervor will catch on in a big way to gain a huge following among classical music and film aficionados, and rightly so.

"The integration of so much engineering into one giant instrument is a real model of 'unity from diversity,' says Bates. "All these different materials and technologies-and people-syncing together to make beautiful music is a real model for how we should all behave as people."

Mason Bates, Courtney Wise

Bates and his cohorts have created a metaphor for the best, most inspiring aspects of life as we would like to live it. An example of the finest that music and film have to offer, Philharmonia Fantastique is sure to become a classic, worthy of many repeated viewings; a work that will last well into our century and beyond.


Photo credits: Todd Rosenberg (headshot); Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra (2022)

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