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MUSIC

A musical celebration of 100 years of Disney in Joburg

A musical celebration of 100 years of Disney in Joburg
Halle Bailey attends the UK Premiere of Disney's "The Little Mermaid" on May 15, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Kate Green/Getty Images for Disney)

A 100 years and 23 Oscars later, Disney’s songs have proved able to bring a glaze of nostalgic tears to the eyes of even Midrand’s toughest dads and uncles.

Like Cadbury or Versace, the name Disney has been exalted to far more than just that of a family or a corporation. Say it, and you know what will be conjured up in most people’s imaginations: giant fairy-tale castles, dark-browed icy stepmothers, singing animals, talking cars, bright-hued adventure, and a good helping of treacle to help the lessons go down.

But, perhaps above all, the strongest and stickiest memories are of the songs that fill out the candy-coloured fables and doe-eyed escapades. From its very first feature film, 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney Productions realised the cultural and commercial value of its musical creations, and released what would be the world’s first soundtrack album.

Now, 100 years (and 23 Oscars) later, Disney’s songs proved able to bring a glaze of nostalgic tears to the eyes of even Midrand’s toughest dads and uncles, who brought their eager broods along to the Disney 100 concert at the Gallagher Centre, to celebrate Disney’s centennial.

The Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio was founded in 1923, by Walt and his brother Roy, and started with cartoon shorts, including the very first Mickey Mouse films. They entered feature production in the 1930s, when they made the first slew of megahit Disney classics, including Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp and Mary Poppins. The last movie that Walt Disney himself worked on before his death was The Jungle Book, after which Disney’s animation department went into decline and the company focused more on its theme park ventures.

The Disney Renaissance of the 1980s may be credited to corporate smarts, but its long legacy in the hearts of generations of viewers is thanks to the artists, especially the songwriters who spun such marvels as the music and lyrics of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules. (The great composer to whom we owe our thanks for that string of titles is Alan Menken.)

The concert at the Gallagher Centre featured five talented young South African singers, accompanied by the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Eddie Clayton. The evening was held up by high energy throughout, as the performers swished and trilled through popular musical highlights, with lively video montages projected onto a big screen behind them.

Most songs were greeted with warm titters of happy recognition from the audience. A notable exception was “Let it Go” from Frozen (the second-highest-grossing animated movie of all time), whose opening piano lament and glittering snowflakes aroused loud squeals from all corners. But nought could surpass the vigour and zeal of the closing number, “Circle of Life” from The Lion King (whose remake is the highest-grossing animated movie of all time), complete with Lebo M.’s opening calls and chants.

Disney capitalised on some of its recent high-value acquisitions as well, with thundering musical interludes (and thrilling video montages) from Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Avengers. Mickey Mouse got his extended homage as well, with a full clip and live accompaniment for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a segment from the 1940 film Fantasia, based on the Goethe poem and Dukas composition. We were sent on our way with a sing-along to “Hakuna Matata”, ending an evening of No Worries, at least until the next Daily Maverick headline appeared on our phones. 

The Disney 100 concerts will also be held in Cape Town in July, at GrandWest.

150 years of Rachmaninov

Before old Walt had commissioned his syrupy symphonies to fill the world stage, sentimental music lovers were caught up in adoration for the confections of Sergei Rachmaninov, the renowned pianist and composer whose Preludes and Piano Concertos have terrorised ambitious students since Russia’s days of Tsardom. His symphonic and instrumental music is among the most beloved in the classical repertoire, and performances to mark his 2023 sesquicentennial hardly seem like a special occasion on any orchestra’s season programme.

Not that one would complain. Some arch progressives may dismiss his music as Romantic schmaltz, but Rachmaninov (who indeed met Walt Disney, in 1942) was really an extraordinarily gifted artist of adroit craft and a great aptitude for spinning minutely intimate and detailed moments into large-scale works of grandeur.

Rachmaninov is mostly loved for his piano and symphonic music, but he was also a marvellous composer for the voice. In particular, I would direct interested readers to his exquisite choral work All-Night Vigil, and his lyrical operas Aleko and Francesca da Rimini. A recent concert given by the Johannesburg Chamber Music Collective, titled “Songs of Love and Death”, also introduced me to some of his evocative songs.

The concert featured the Lithuanian singer Aukse Trinkunas accompanied by the omnipresent pianist Eugene Joubert, with intermittent appearances by the cellist Gerrit Koorsen. She regaled a Joburg audience in Parktown’s Northwards House with songs by the Russian masters Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov. Though I understood none of the words she sang (and forgot to read any of the translations provided in my programme insert), I felt that I understood the full force of their meaning from Trinkunas’s transfixing facial expressions of fierce longing and dread.

The bottom of Trinkunas’s range had a dark, burnished quality that added to the depth of the songs performed, but she had some trouble in her upper registers, where some notes were strained. The unalloyed delight of the programme was the second half, when Koorsen and Joubert performed Rachmaninov’s entire G-minor Cello Sonata, a masterwork of lyrical ardour and ferocity. This is music worth remembering for 150 years.

The Johannesburg Chamber Music Collective gives a series of concerts throughout the year. Visit their website for details of upcoming events. DM

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