Disney’s corporate dominance can be quite disenchanting, but for many, classic songs like “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Beauty and the Beast” still hold magic. In Shenyang, China in the 1980s, Lang Lang was one of countless people who fell under Uncle Walt’s spell.
Growing up, Lang remembers watching “Snow White” and “Pinocchio” and playing the melodies on the piano at family concerts. “Not only do we have the repertoire of classical music, but we [have] a lot of animation repertoire,” he says.
The pianist has spent the past four years commissioning new arrangements of Disney’s songbook, transforming the company’s vast library of show songs – from the 1930s operetta of “Snow White” to the modern salsa of “We are not talking about Bruno” – for his new album. “The Disney Book” also features special guests like Miloš, Guo Gan and Jon Batiste.
On Thursday, he will perform most of the album – with various guests – at the Hollywood Bowl.
Sitting at the piano on a Zoom call, Lang bursts into the bars of old memories — “One day my prince will come,” “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” — and remembers the jazz he heard in old Mickey Mouse shorts and the thrill of seeing “The Lion King” when he was a teenager. Even though the definition of a “Disney song” is broad, he thinks there is a guideline.
“The secret weapon of Disney music, in the past, was Walt Disney himself,” says Lang, who was lucky enough to walk through Disney’s old office and see photos of him discussing “Fantasia.” with conductor Leopold Stokowski. “Walt Disney himself gave very clear ideas about the kind of style Disney music should have, which is kind of a warm melody, with themes that people can remember – people will sing very well – and that has an excellent type of harmonic and classic bass. .”
A lot changed after the founder’s death in 1966, of course, and now “Disney song” can mean anything from Elton John to Lin-Manuel Miranda to Kristen Anderson-Lopez. “But you feel there’s a connection,” Lang says, “you feel that emotion, you feel that warmth, you feel those melodic waves in the music. And I think that was Walt Disney’s theory.
But what is one of our best classical virtuosos doing with these children’s songs? Has Disney’s relentless cultural busyness now consumed the concert hall — and not just the downtown venue named after Walt — too?
One of the reasons Lang turned to the Disney repertoire: he recently became a father. His wife, Gina Alice, sings “When You Wish Upon a Star” on the new album as a tribute to their one-year-old son and, he says, “newborn babies everywhere”.
Whenever his foundation visits elementary schools, the kids always ask him to play Disney songs – “Frozen”! “Aladdin”! “Coconut”! “They always ask,” he says. “So that’s another reason we’re doing it. I think it’s something that’s good for us — for the classical music world, but also good for kids. When they learn something purely instrumental, they want to hear something that relates to their life. We would like to make sure that children will not be afraid of classical music.
Initially, Lang wanted to make a broader animation album beyond Disney songs. After all, it was a short “Tom and Jerry” that introduced him to classical music and started him on his path, and he wanted to honor the long tradition of exposing young ears to the canon through various cartoons. But he realized he needed a more focused theme, and Disney offered a pretty deep sink.
He still smuggled a tribute to Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” from that famous short, “The Cat Concerto,” into the quicksilver pianism of the album’s “Mary Poppins Fantasy.”
Lang and his arrangers – including Stephen Hough, Natalie Tenenbaum and Randy Kerber – brought the virtuosity and style of several great classics to these new renditions. “The Rainbow Connection” sounds a bit like Schumann. “Baby Mine” from “Dumbo” is Debussy-esque — “French impressionist ideas of putting children to sleep,” he says. And “Let It Go” sounds like a piano concerto by Liszt, with “lots of octaves and lots of technical bends”.
After all, Lang wants discerning adults and classical music fans to enjoy the album as well: “The interpretation will be very different. Hope you don’t feel like it’s like a spa treatment.
“Lang Lang plays Disney”
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, September 15