Critics are supposed to hate gimmicks and shy away from concerts that are pitched to family audiences. Certainly Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the first woman to head a major American orchestra, makes it her business to open her programs to a wide spectrum of audiences including families. After all, she was a student of Leonard Bernstein in 1989 when she won the Koussevitzky Conducting Prize at Tanglewood and studied with him. Bernstein was known for his concerts pitched specifically to "Young People." Therefore on January 15 at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland, Maestro Alsop led the BSO in a multi-media program entitled "Icarus at the Edge of Time."
MAKE WAY: MARIN ALSOP & DROIDS
What particularly made this concert family-friendly was that the show began in the lobby with fully costumed Star Wars characters, a couple of whom would escort Alsop on stage to conduct the second selection of the program—John Williams' Star Wars Suite.
Of the seven movements, "Duel of the Fates" with its insistent and lush violin line provided ample opportunity to see the Maestro dance. Yes, Alsop throws her whole body into her conducting and this critic sees her as the perfect conductor for concert newcomers. Other movements of the piece were also enjoyable—"Across the Stars" showed off the BSO's admirable abilities to play this fluid and melancholic music with its satisfying crescendos without succumbing to an overly dramatic edge. The brass section got to show off its talent in the "Imperial March" movement as well as in "Throne Room and End Title," the last movement, which combines brass and strings.
IT TAKES A WHOLE STARSHIP TO…
The focus of the program was the BSO co-commissioned work by Baltimore-born-and-bred Philip Glass—Icarus at the Edge of Time with an animated film by experimental filmmakers Al Holmes and Al Taylor and a narrator's script created by physicist Brian Greene with help from Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang. As an entire multi-media package, the work is engaging and educationally worth seeing. However, this critic seriously doubts the music could stand by itself.
While the program notes say that Green approached Glass since they have been "friendly for years" to develop a film treatment with an original musical score by Glass for Green's children's book by the same title, Alsop also made it clear that she too persistently contacted the extremely prolific Glass until he committed to the project. Given such work as his scientist-inspired operas Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Kepler (2009), the subject matter of Icarus about a boy who survives the exploration of a black hole was perfect for Glass's trance-inducing music.
Award-winning broadcaster Scott Simon as the narrator made this performance of Icarus particularly appealing. His energetic introduction to the work was a layman's guide to Einstein's General Theory of Relativity as well as an invitation to experience a new reality. How does a smart boy like Icarus fare in outer space? Icarus at the Edge of Time is a modern telling of the Greek tale of a boy given wings who defies his father's instruction to avoid flying too near the sun lest the wax melts holding the feathered wings together.
The work was backed by an substantial list of sponsors including: the World Science Festival in New York with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, South bank Centre (London) with the Royal Society; Associazione Festival della Scienza with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Glasgow's Concerts Halls; and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Neuroscience, through Dr. Solomon and Elaine Snyder. Before the Strathmore Center debut, Icarus enjoyed its world premiere June 2010 at the World Science Festival in New York with Stephen Hawking in attendance followed by its European premiere in July with the London Philharmonic conducted by Marin Alsop at London's Royal Festival Hall.
CERES, THE DWARF PLANET THAT COULD
Perhaps delaying the discussion of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Ceres, the composition that began this concert, is a case of saving the most interesting music for last. As orchestral pieces run, Ceres, at just under six and half minutes, is short in duration but long on impressive jazzy and brassy sound. Opening and closing measures create a mysterious environment including the closing passage of cellos being played beneath their bridges. The composition brought to this critic's mind Gérard Grisey's Le Noir de L'Étoile, an all-percussion work that is all about outer space and crescendo, but, like Ceres, had the ability to raise the hair on the back of one's neck.
Marin Alsop is a brilliant program maker. She knows how to put together offerings that fill her concert halls and brings in new audience. Even the stuffier old grump is going to find lots to enjoy.
Cover Photo - Grant Leighton