The Disney Book: A Classical Celebration

Disney music gets dressed up for a night at the concert hall in superstar pianist Lang Lang’s new album The Disney Book. The deluxe version of the record, released on September 16, 2022, by the Deutsche Grammophone label in collaboration with Disney Music Group, features 28 tracks that span the breadth of music from the Disney canon. It is a joyous collection whose release coincides perfectly with the centenary celebration of the Walt Disney Company.

The album’s first single, Feed the Birds (originally composed by the Sherman Brothers for Mary Poppins) is a delicate and lovely interpretation of the song that Walt Disney declared his favorite. A music video for the song was released, which was shared on the official Disney blog on June 23, 2022. Disney described the filming process, stating, “Captured as dawn broke over the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle at the Disneyland Park, the music video captures the magic of Lang Lang’s album and of Walt Disney’s legacy.”

Another highlight is Lang Lang’s collaboration with Academy Award-winning artist Jon Batiste on the song It’s All Right from Soul. The result is something akin to a piece that George Gershwin might have composed, combining the vibrant world of jazz with the sensibilities of classical. 

Speaking of the partnership, Lang Lang stated, “…we [got] my new great friend Jon Batiste to play New Orleans-style jazz on top of my classical and jazz style [in ‘It’s All Right.’] So we try to have this mix with classical jazz and New Orleans jazz.”

Some of the world’s great arrangers were enlisted to work on the album as well, with Sir Stephen Hough, Natalie Tenenbaum, and Randy Kerber all offering contributions. In an article by Deutsche Grammophone, Sir Stephen Hough stated, “I’ve been a huge admirer of Lang Lang for years and I was delighted to be asked to arrange some Disney songs for him. I loved the challenge of transforming these popular songs, beloved by generations of children and parents, into solo piano pieces, rooted in the classical tradition of the great transcribers of the past.”

Other artists contributing to the album include world-renowned singer Andrea Bocelli, Columbian singer/songwriter Sebastian Yatra, guitarist Miloš, Chinese erhu player Guo Gan, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of conductor Robert Ziegler. 

Featuring a good balance between classic Disney songs and beloved modern hits, the album does a good job of carrying the listener through the history of Disney song. Including numbers like Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, Whistle While You Work from Snow White, We Don’t Talk About Bruno from Encanto, Let It Go from Frozen, Baby Mine from Dumbo, and Remember Me from Pixar’s Coco. Though each will be instantly recognizable, they’ve been reworked and re-imagined to make them feel appropriately classical. It’s fascinating to identify these influences. For instance, a keen ear will likely note that Baby Mine clearly takes inspiration from the classical Impressionism of artists like Claude Debussy. 

The song When You Wish Upon a Star from Pinnochio feels like the album’s emotional core. Lang Lang is joined on the track by fellow virtuoso (and spouse) Gina Alice. In an interview with Yahoo! Entertainment, Lang Lang states that the song was recorded with their 20-month-old son in mind, saying, “We wanted to do this piece particularly for our son. So for the baby, we want to give him some smooth music to hug him, kiss him.” 

It seems that this is an album that Lang Lang was destined to record. Animation spurred his interest in classical music, after a viewing of a Tom and Jerry cartoon titled The Cat Concerto caught his imagination. In an interview with CNBC’s Tania Brier, he recalled how the characters,  “play the (Franz) Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody Number II and unfortunately I didn’t know who Liszt was at that time, but I certainly knew that Tom did a great job, and Jerry kind of cheated.”

His first encounter with Disney came in 1995 at the age of 13 when he visited Tokyo Disneyland. In the Yahoo! Entertainment article, he stated, “My first Disney memory is going to Tokyo when I was 13 years old, in 1995. After I won the competition in Japan. Because that time in China, they have no Disneyland. So that was my first time in Disneyland, which was in Tokyo. It was like the happiest day in my life. And it’s amazing that in 2015, when Disneyland opened in Shanghai, I played the opening. Because it was like, ‘I had to do this. This is so exciting.'”

Speaking with Deutsche Grammophone, he elaborated, “…it was the first time I had heard ‘It’s a Small World’ and the melody stayed with me all day – and long afterwards.”

In addition, Lang Lang credits the jazz heard in early Disney shorts and the impact of Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer’s music from The Lion King as spurring his passion for Disney music. 

The album also represents Lang Lang’s commitment to spreading music education to young listeners. When performing for school-age audiences, he found that the children consistently requested that he play Disney songs. He explains, “So this is another reason why we’re doing it. I think it’s something that’s good for us — for the classical music world, but also good for the kids. When they learn something purely instrumental, they want to hear something which connects to their life. We’d like to make sure that the kids will not be afraid of classical music.”

Walt Disney once said, “I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.” His particular genius was his ability to marry the two, so that the audience was carried along toward education without even realizing it. Lang Lang’s album embodies Walt’s ideal, helping us better understand classical music by embracing songs that are part of our collective memory, that live in our hearts, memory, and imagination. 

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