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BSO Explores the Golden Ratio

Mario Livio

Mario Livio
Last night at Strathmore, Dr. Mario Livio, senior astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute and author of the book The Golden Ratio, joined the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to introduce the performance of the Schönberg tone poem Verklärte Nacht and Mozart's Symphony No. 40. Livio offered the audience concise commentaries on each piece, aided by a massive projection screen over the orchestra with slides to reinforce his talk. Livio led the audience to ponder why something should be considered more beautiful than something else: his answer was symmetry. In particular, our evolutionarily developed sense of fear and attraction, such as the threat in the symmetric face of a lion, or the attraction of the perfect tail of a genetically superior peacock.

Livio then asked the audience to contemplate the aspects of hope and despair found in the Dehmel poem that inspired Verklärte Nacht, the racy poem about a young couple walking in moonlight. The background of the poem, more or less, is that the woman tells the man that she is carrying another man's child. After struggling with this news, the man accepts the child as his own, after which the couple shares an intimate moment. (See Janet Bedell's program notes for more information.) The orchestra then played a brief passage involving turmoil lacking musical symmetry; and later a highly symmetric passage portraying hope.

Now brilliantly adding a visual dimension to the music, Livio, along with Zoltan Levay, compiled a progression of fractals – self-similar geometric constructions like this – that changed along with the form, modulations, and level of symmetry in Schönberg’s early tonal masterpiece. After about ten to fifteen minutes to get used to the format, an awareness of the different intensities of fractals developed. By the last chord of the tone poem, the sound of blissful hope and an image of symmetrical perfection gradually faded out together at the same time. Impressively well planned, this format engaged the audience so that they felt it was their responsibility to listen actively.

Guest conductor, James Judd, also led the orchestra in the Orchestral Suite No. 3 of Bach and the Symphony No. 40 of Mozart. Though a demanding conductor, Judd for the most part constantly pushed the orchestra in terms of tempo and perpetual loudness, which led to ensemble issues that are not the fault of the Baltimore Symphony. The exception to this trend was in the Minuetto: Allegretto of the Mozart Symphony, which was conducted in a stately, slow 1. The wind sections in the final Allegro assai movement were lovely.

This program will repeat tonight and tomorrow evening (March 30 and 31, 8 pm) and Sunday afternoon (April 1, 3 pm), but only at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.

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