The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association (CSOA) offered the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first performances of Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra, written by Mason Bates, former CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence and composer of the Grammy Award-winning opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs .The new work, a CSO co-commission with five other U.S. orchestras, represents a collaboration between Bates and multi-Oscar and BAFTA-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom and Oscar-nominated Hollywood animator, Jim Capobianco. The 25-minute concerto for orchestra and animated film features the mercurial character “Sprite” who explores the different instrument families of the orchestra and interacts with the conductor and musicians, further connecting stage and screen. Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra is part of School Concerts taking place May 12 and 13 at Symphony Center, with more than 2,000 Chicago Public School students attending with complimentary tickets and transportation offered through the Negaunee Music Institute at the CSO. CSO for Kids: Family Matinee concerts featuring the new work took place on May 14. Conductor Edwin Outwater leads these CSO concerts which also include excerpts from Bates’ Mothership and music by Walker, Fung, Gounod and Dukas. If you missed this performance, all is not lost, the soundtrack for the animated film, which is scheduled for release in theaters and on a major streaming platform later this year, was recorded by Outwater and the CSO in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center in February 2021 and is now available as a Sony Classical release. Keep your eye on that sprite.
Philharmonia Fantastique was created for a new generation of listeners in the tradition of works like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which introduce the audience to the unique qualities and capabilities of the different instruments in the orchestra. Its name is a nod to Symphonie Fantastique, composer Hector Berlioz’s epic achievement in orchestration and instrumental color.
Philharmonia Fantastique portrays the four families of the orchestra as distinct entities, each with their own unique sound worlds and musical motifs: the slinky, sophisticated noir-jazz of the woodwinds; the lush romanticism of the strings; the bold techno-fanfares of the brass; and the percussion section “drum circle” in all its versatility. Ultimately the work’s message is one of unity: the diverse instruments of the orchestra are most powerful when working together as one giant instrument. The story unfolds through music and visuals alone, without narration, creating a piece without language barriers that is accessible and entertaining for audiences of all ages.
Composer Mason Bates explains:
“The Sprite has to figure out a way to bring the families together, and the way they do that is to learn to play each other’s themes. That became a key inspiration for us as the piece unfolded. When an orchestra plays, the integration of so much engineering into one giant instrument is a real model of ‘unity from diversity.’ 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.”
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s co-commission of Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra is in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the concert series for children that began in 1919. The series was established by the Orchestra’s second music director, Frederick Stock and this programming continues today, along with extensive educational and community engagement programs produced by the Negaunee Music Institute at the CSO. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was originally scheduled to present the world premiere performances in March 2020, which were rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, Bates, Outwater and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra came together in Chicago in February 2021 to rehearse and record the original soundtrack for the new work, overcoming challenges and exploring creative solutions to bring this music to life.
Read “Recording in a time of COVID,” Bates account of the recording session in Chicago, here. Watch “Making of Philharmonia Fantastique with the CSO”.
Watch Official Trailer for Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra.
Photos are courtesy of the CSO