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Stormtroopers Raid the BSO as BSO Goes to the Windup Space

January 18, 2011

Conductor Julien Benichou (photo by Robert McIver)

Synchronicity enjoyed a sold-out, standing room only debut last week. The new partnership marks a new musical cooperation between the young Mobtown Modern and the solid symphonic sound that is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Orchestras across the nation scramble to cater to listeners under 30, wherever they can be found. Mobtown Modern curator Brian Sacawa and BSO Vice President of Marketing and Communications Eileen Andrews Jackson are making it happen. If that means taking BSO performers out of the concert hall and into the Windup Space’s well-tended bar on North Ave., so be it.

The Jan. 12 Mobtown/BSO collaborative performance of Glassworks by Philip Glass marked the first in what ought to prove a series of great successes. Recorded in 1982, Glassworks‘ six movements are old by contemporary standards, but its minimalism maintains its freshness. This performance’s intimate orchestra of 11, conducted by Julien Benichou, started off building up sounds in layers, but the grandness of the work didn’t become apparent until the group started the fourth movement, “Rubric.” Sacawa’s outstanding soprano sax added a warm human element that rose above the relentless din of Glass’ pulses and hissing speaker static, offering a sweet continuity from “Rubric” into “Facades”, the most compelling moments of the night.

What might have been done without? Guy Werner’s video piece. One audience member confided that he closed his eyes to avoid watching. The video’s failing was its reliance on the usual clichés: sunrise, sunset, the mass of humans moving up escalators, down escalators, dashing for cabs, crossing pavements to match the music’s multiple meters layering into a dense aural fabric. A more effective pairing is the Jerome Robbin choreography for two of the movements as danced by the New York City Ballet, first in 1983.

Best of all, Glassworks whetted appetites for more Glass on the weekend: Icarus at the Edge of Time. Brian Greene’s board book of the same name formed the backbone of this multimedia endeavor and collaborating with playwright David Henry Hwang in writing a script, while Glass offered up the score. Filmmakers Al + Al created a computer-generated universe for Icarus to fly in.

This modern Icarus does not fly toward the sun on wax and feather wings as in Greek myth. He flies along the surface of a black hole. He is going ahead in time, but his perception is that time slows down—a fantastic musical problem.

Is Icarus a “Peter and the Wolf for the 21st century” as Greene hoped? While falling short of that, it is the most visceral science lesson a kid could ask for—even if he or she is 40-some years old.

Greene acted his off-the-cuff science professor part admirably on Friday night. Even a glitch in the audio-visual booth didn’t make him lose a beat during his 7-minute primer on Einstein, relativity, and the elusive black hole. The narrator, NPR’s Scott Simon, kept the story flowing like a good grandfather.

Was Baltimore-born Glass the man for this story? The music doesn’t really advance the plot so much as match it. And unlike the master Prokofiev, Glass doesn’t give voice to individuals to offer charm or emotional complexity. For example, Icarus, the boy, is nothing but impetuosity and runs without motif. Musically, Glassworks, from the mid-point of Glass’ career, offers the greater sparkle and glint.

His 2010 Icarus remains a surface-level work, excellent for accompanying a film but without the ability to soar. It is effervescence and urgency without gravity-defying verve. It’s more of a black hole where time slows and listeners need the narrative, rather than a showstopper where hearts race unaided.

The real climax came prematurely, in the overture. Ceres by Mark-Anthony Turnage pounced on the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall audience–a wonderful opener. The final asymmetric volleys of percussion struck the drum of the soul like an asteroid apocalypse.

Now cue the stormtroopers! Between the Turnage and the Glass came what most listeners were waiting for, judging by the response: John Williams’ suite from Star Wars. There is something awesome about sitting next to a faceless Jawa, red eyes aglow from under the hood of his robe. Even better, the middle-aged woman on my other side was open-mouthed, panting, and bouncing in her seat as the BSO struck up the Main Title. The players launched us into the stellar spheres with full “booyah” brio. Under maestra Marin Alsop’s direction, they treated the score as they would a Beethoven symphony, garnering applause between movements. (Stormtroopers of the Galactic Empire were available in the lobby for photo ops afterward).

This well-chosen program highlights a certain irony facing classical music. On the one hand, you have a film score–Williams does rip off the best of the best–that can easily stand alone without a screen—as the BSO proved in spades. On the other, you have a new commission that begs for screen and narrator, thus turning the symphony hall into something more like an MGM back lot. The crossroads of all this activity is probably a spot more like the Windup Space, where people expect anything to happen.

This pair of programs isn’t the last time the BSO will collaborate with Mobtown this season. At the Windup Space, Sacawa announced Project 20 Remix. Twenty musicians, including several BSO members, offer up 20-second samples to 12 remix artists—among them, Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of the Russian master). The only rule: each track must contain all 20 samples. Look for the results to be released on CD.

Photo courtesy Robert McIver. See his complete set of Glassworks photos here.

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  • Erikkestler

    Baltimore’s connection to the rest of the art world is felt nowhere more than in its “classical” music scene — a fact people overlook again and again. Thanks for reminding us that both Philip Glass and the grandson of Prokofiev have recently left their calling cards here!

  • Erik Kestler

    Also, I’d rather hear something like this in a bar than yet another four-chord pretty-boys-with-attitutes rock band. It’s happening in NYC, so why not here?

  • Thor

    Then you might be interested in what is happening at the Windup Space. In addition to Mobtown Modern, they host the Out of Your Head Collective–a weekly event of improvised and experimental music as well as the Creative Differences series, which has brought world renowned musicians from all over to Baltimore. Add to that mix your nights of electronic music, art openings, film screenings, rock bands, etc. and you have a pretty eclectic mix of music and art represented. All of this on North Avenue, at the very center of the city.