The Music of the Spheres


Music and space have gone together since, if not the dawning of music and astronomy, then since the dawn of civilization. One of the things that keep us looking up at the night sky is the cyclical regularity of the planets and stars, and music is based in that same sense of regularity. The fundamental unit of music, sound, is a wave that flows through cycles, just as the planets, moons and stars fall eternally through their own – you can listen here. It is the regularity of sound waves that makes music coherent and it is the regularity of the stars and the seasons that make the daunting heavens seem almost comforting.

So it should not be unusual or surprising that space music has existed for a lot longer than Hearts of Space. Space music landed in New York City last month in exciting and imaginative ways, and turned the premiere place for space into a music venue and the premiere concert hall into a place for an extraterrestrial journey.

The Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History is the place to travel through the heavens, and itself seems like an object that has descended from space, it’s calm grey sphere seeming to float in it’s enormous glass case. It was in the Planetarium that Gotham Chamber Opera presented a lively and imaginative production of Haydn’s opera Il Mondo Della Luna. The piece was an imaginative choice to being with, as Haydn is not known for his operas, which are mediocre at best. Il Mondo Della Luna is an example of his both his better operatic work and the problems with the genre. Basically, as a composer he was a genius of the abstract forms of the Classical era but not able to speak expressively in the characterization in music that opera demands. This work is full of charming music and overall verve and is more acceptable because the demands it makes on drama are barely existent. It’s the story of a fake astrologer (a redundancy) Ecclitico (sung by Nicholas Coppolo) and his friends Ernesto and Cecco (Timothy Kuhn and Matthew Tuell) who trick a patriarch, Buonafede (Marco Nisticò), into thinking he has travelled to the Moon, where a fake ruler, Cecco, declares that Buonafede’s daughter’s, Flaminia and Clarice (Albina Shagimuratova and Hanan Alattar), and his maid, Lisetta (Rachel Calloway), must be married to their love interests. Everything is fake; everyone lives happily ever after – opera!

Pictured (left to right): Matthew Tuell (back), Albina Shagimuratova, Marco Nisticò, Hanan Alattar; Photo by Richard Termine

But even the slightest material can be done well, presented with energy and ideas, and Gotham Chamber Opera did this extremely well. The idea of putting an about a supposed trip to the moon inside a sphere was both gimmicky, in an attractive way, and smart, it was singing under a rotating sphere of stars. A small opera company working a short season has limited resources, so how do they stage such a trip? By using a combination of the video resources inherent at a planetarium and adding appropriate touches of stagecraft; Buonafede travels to the Moon through a moving field of stars, while wearing a NASA-type spacesuit, a brilliant touch (all the costumes, both representations of 18th century dress and stylized space outfits that showed the influence of 1960’s go-go culture, were smartly and attractively designed by Anka Lupes). The video and production design, by Philip Bussmann, was often spectacular and at times dazzled so much that it briefly overwhelmed the rest of the proceedings, and those, the direction and the performances by the singers, were the things that made Il Mondo Della Luna a complete delight. The stage, as it were, was the space on the floor from which the Zeiss projector ascends, surrounded on three sides by audience seating and on the fourth backed by the orchestra (they played modern instruments under Neal Goren, with Lydia Brown’s harpsichord as the recitative continuo, and sounded very bright and thin under the curvature of the dome, which lacks reverb and is not the best acoustic environment – the only drawback to the space). The performing space was tiny with the audience small and close by. Diane Paulus’ direction made use of it as much vertically as horizontally, characters clambered up and down rolling ladders and on and off tables and it was the kind of simple and committed exploitation of a limitation, turning it into an advantage, that marks the best direction. There was a bit of trite Supremes-style grrl-power choreography, but mainly the staging made everything interesting, the singers were active and the characters were alive. This was also opera as close-up as one is likely to experience, and having people in costume singing that close is both tremendous fun for the audience and does a tremendous service to the work. Without having to apply resources towards projecting from a broad, deep stage, across an orchestra pit and into a multi-tiered hall, the singers were free to move and act as well, to perform the roles, and the quality of characterization from the entire cast was excellent and one of the pleasures of the production. Coppolo was witty and charming as Ecclitico, who one wants to root for, Nisticò expressed the right balance of buffoonery, dignity and sympathy as Buonafede and Rachel Calloway was the finest of a fine cast, singing beautifully and also expressing a vivacious sex-appeal. Il Mondo Della Luna is not a great opera but this was a great production, one of the most consistently pleasurable opera performances I’ve seen. Gotham Chamber Opera deserves a lot of praise as an organization. They had the good taste to choose a comic opera (it’s my contention that comic operas are not performed enough, when they are frequently skillful works that bring out the best in performers and the imaginations of directors), and the brilliant gimmick of using the Planetarium. There is a gradually and steadily building audience for opera, and small companies putting on performances in unexpected places is a part of that; by doing so they attract curious patrons interested in the novelty of the setting, and the quality and sheer fun of productions like this will bring them back.

Another way to bring people into the concert hall is to show a movie, and that’s what the Houston Symphony, led by Hans Graf, did at Carnegie Hall. The centerpiece of their concert, just a few days after Il Mondo Della Luna, was a performance of Holst’s The Planets accompanied by a beautiful high definition film by Duncan Copp using images from NASA, which toured the planets of our solar system. The twist is that Holst’s music, especially the first movement “Mars, The Bringer of War,” or derivatives of it, has been used countless times as accompaniment to movies. The piece vies with Carmina Burana as the most frequently ripped-off classical music used in the movies.

The Planets is also one of the few pieces of classical music popular outside of the classical world, and deservedly so. It is colorful, energetic, entertaining and inventive and it belies what Ravel said about his own Bolero, that it was a masterpiece that contained no music, in that it is a great piece of music in its own right, with some of the finest orchestration in the literature. That evening, the entire program was an exercise in the colors of sound, as Graf opened the concert with Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3, from the time when the composer was a successful protégé of Rimsky-Korsakov, with all the “Oriental” flavors that implies. He finished the first half whith Henri Dutilleux’s beautiful and mysterious Timbres, espace, mouvemet ou La Nuit étoilée. His orchestra has a finely etched, lean sound, a little less powerful than the biggest name American orchestras, and they played this music well. The opening piece was lively, crisp and clear, with good shadings of color and dynamics, the second work was impressively well-tuned, which is vital in this music where color is produced through the combinations of different types of instruments playing at precise intervals from each other. Dutilleux has the ability to create weightless and timeless forms that are captivating, and while his style clearly comes from origins in the music of Debussy, he’s an individual and a Modernist, and an exceptional artist. He makes complex, non-traditional music sound alluring to the ear, and that’s a special sensibility, not unlike Stravinsky’s. Graf emphasized, to my ears, the elements of the Russian’s Agon found in the first section of the Frenchman’s piece.

The weight of the orchestra was balanced fully in the main piece, which at times should be, and was, satisfyingly loud. From the opening threatening quintuple meter the combination of music and film was exciting, even thrilling. The music moved forward malevolently while on the screen the image of Mars rushed towards us, and the animation of the Mars Rover mission landing in its bundle of comical balloons, then bouncing and rolling was invigorating. The movie continued in this vein, with dramatic fly-by scenes of the planets; a gorgeous false color depiction of Venus, the stately grandeur of Jupiter and it’s fascinating moons Europa and Ganymede, the mesmerizing grandeur of Saturn, then the growing mysteries of the outer gas giants, Uranus and Neptune. The music is an imagined travelogue from an Earth-bound composer, based in human mythology, but the combination of this with the actual images of the celestial bodies reinforces what a great imagination Holst had. Venus may be not be a hottie but truly an inferno, Mercury an obstinate hard ball, but the gentle beauty of the music matched the lovely image on-screen, and there’s nothing so mercurial as the orbit of that planet. The gas giants are more protean, literally without cores in some instances but also enticing and inscrutable, canvases on which to paint or own imaginations. Holst gives us his, and Copp has given the composer the honors. The experience of this event was not like watching a movie with soundtrack; it was that of listening to the performance and savoring the accompanying images. The nature of the event clearly brought a lot of new faces into Carnegie Hall, always a good thing for orchestral music, and the collaboration between symphony and scientists is polished and impressive. Excellent music making from conductor and musicians, and an excellent idea, especially appropriate for this year of 2010.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

One thought on “The Music of the Spheres”

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