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15.1.11

More Glass: BSO's 'Icarus'

Mobtown Modern's performance of Philip Glass's classic Glassworks on Wednesday night served as an introduction to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's local premiere of a new Glass work, Icarus at the Edge of Time. After a rather disappointing first half of the season -- the last concert by the BSO under review was the season opening gala back in September -- Marin Alsop finally seemed back on track with this concert, taking microphone in hand to introduce the new work, a collaboration between Glass and physicist Brian Greene to create a film of his recent children's book Icarus at the Edge of Time, complete with a new score. It was a partnership that Alsop helped engineer (see some video notes about this), and the BSO was one of the co-commissioners of the piece that resulted, although it has already been premiered, as part of science festivals in New York and London last summer.

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B. Greene, Icarus at the Edge of Time
Greene himself gave a brilliant, funny explanation of the scientific understanding of black holes before the second half began, making a case for his book's updating of the Greek legend of Icarus. In this modern version of that classic tale of adolescent hubris, Daedalus is the pilot of a spaceship on an expedition of 25 trillion miles to make the first rendez-vous with alien life. His son Icarus, a mathematical prodigy, has designed a special small craft, the Runabout, which he soon takes out on an unauthorized voyage to investigate an uncharted black hole. Ignoring his father's pleas to return to the ship, Icarus manages to steer his winged craft along the edge of the black hole without falling into its inescapable gravitational pull. What Icarus has failed to take into account is Einstein's theory of relativity, the distortion of time and space near the black hole, so that when he returns from his daring voyage, ten thousand years have passed. The divine punishment for hubris becomes the cost of scientific discovery, as Icarus loses his father but learns about the future that their pioneering trek has made possible.

A large screen above the orchestra displayed the film version of the story, created by Al + Al (Al Holmes and Al Taylor), pioneers in the combination of computer-generated imagery and live action performance. Librettist David Henry Hwang assisted Greene with the adaptation of the book, rendering it as scenes in the silent film and narration (read beautifully by NPR personality Scott Simon). Glass's score struck my ears as one of his more prosaic, with few moments of particularly striking instrumental or harmonic combinations, although the composer's trademarked repetitions made an excellent metaphor for the whirling revolution of cosmic orbit. Somewhat unusually, Glass turned often to the snare drum (perhaps a tribute to the military sounds of Holst's Mars) and evoked a sort of maracas-tinged Latin dance as Icarus enters the library of the future, and there was an interesting augmentation of the values of the bass notes as Icarus was slowed down by the warping of time. Alsop led a smooth and polished performance from the BSO, who played admirably all evening long, a few infelicities in the horns aside, in spite of the sheer number of repetitions.


Other Articles:

Tim Smith, Baltimore Symphony explores the inner child and outer space in fun program (Baltimore Sun, January 15)

---, BSO explores 'Icarus at the Edge of Time' (Baltimore Sun, January 9, 2011)

Andrew Clements, Icarus at the Edge of Time (The Guardian, July 6, 2010)

Icarus at the Edge of Time - Glass, Greene and Al and Al (Gramophone, June 18, 2010)

James R. Oestreich, Salute of the Stars, Cosmic and Otherwise (New York Times, June 3, 2010)
Alsop's programming gave the whole concert a science fiction and astronomy theme, opening with Ceres, a brief sort of overture about the dwarf planet in the asteroid belt of our solar system by Mark-Anthony Turnage. (The composer subtitled the work "Asteroid for Orchestra," dedicating it to Simon Rattle and recently joining it with two other astronomically themed pieces.) Collisions of wind lines (bitonal combinations were reminiscent of Petrushka at times) and the distant rumble of bass drum led to dense brass paired with metallic percussion, the latter like an intergalactic phone ringing (the piece imagines Ceres knocked out of its orbit and into a collision path with Earth -- pick up the phone, Earth!). The most alluring moment was a sort of cosmic growl near the end, produced by low strings bowing behind the bridge.

As much as I would like to think that two scores from 2004 and 2010 were a draw for audiences, the hall seemed to be near full because Alsop also conducted John Williams's Star Wars Suite. Stormtroopers stood in the lobby for photographs with kids big and small at intermission, and two concert-goers seated near me arrived dressed as Jedi knights, complete with glowing light sabers. The music from the first two movies served as the outer movements, a series of motifs that, due to having been a member of the Star Wars generation -- how clearly do I recall seeing the first movie as a kid! -- never fails to give me an emotional frisson. (It was a good thing that Alsop did not pair this score with The Planets, as that would draw attention to just how much Williams stole from Holst.) The inner movements are drawn from the later three movies of the Star Wars series, in which the poor quality of the films is matched by a corresponding lack of inspiration in William's music. For the mind-numbing repetition of a drab, minor-mode ostinato in the "Duel of the Fates" section alone, the musicians should file for workman's compensation.

This concert will be repeated twice more, this evening (January 15, 8 pm) in the Music Center at Strathmore and tomorrow afternoon (January 16, 3 pm) back at Baltimore's Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

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