The Review Is In

Goose bumps from blastoff to Orbit: Houston Symphony space show somehow exceeds the buzz

Goose bumps from blastoff to Orbit: Houston Symphony space show somehow exceeds the buzz

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Still from Dunca Copp's film, Orbit - an HD Odyssey set to the music of John Adams. Courtesy of Houston Symphony
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Abstracted from their original source, painterly images were coupled with Richard Strauss' symphonic poem Also Sprach Zarathustra. Courtesy of Houston Symphony
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Filmmaker Duncan Copp
Giancarlo Guerrero
Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero Photo by Alan Poizner
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News_Houston Symphony_Orbit
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Giancarlo Guerrero

Standing motionless and transfixed, maestro Giancarlo Guerrero let the sound of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring dissipate into the abyss that is Jones Hall before anyone in the audience dared to break the unusually long period of stillness and peace. No one moved. No one was heard breathing. The spellbound audience didn't forget to clap, it wasn't prepared for the moment to end.

Silence is a sign of a mesmerizing performance.

A voyage to outer space may have been what attracted the sold-out crowd to pour into Jones Hall for this weekend's premiere of Orbit - an HD Odyssey, Houston Symphony's collaboration with filmmaker/producer Duncan Copp. But under the baton of the vivacious Guerrero — who was just awarded a Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance for a Nashville Symphony recording of Michael Daugherty's Metropolis Symphony and Deus Ex Machina on the Naxos label (the same album also won Best Classical Contemporary Composition and Best Engineered Classical Album) — every piece on the program was a spiritual journey. 

 "If a picture is worth a thousand words, music is worth a million. Music expresses our experience better than words ever could."

If gold-plated gramophone trophies were granted for live concerts, this classical music gig would be assured the honor without question or hesitation.

Duncan Copp's Orbit

The $620,000 film project that coupled vibrant images from manned and unmanned space missions and geological satellites surpassed any expectations. The buzz had been building up since the sequel to The Planets - an HD Odyssey was announced roughly a year prior. In spite of higher ticket prices, a fresh audience, including many more children than on a typical symphony evening, thronged to take in the sights and sounds.

And that's what Copp and the Houston Symphony fancied: To give non-orchestra fans motive to try on classical music.

Some of the 50,000 photographs taken by NASA's Expedition 29 commander Michael Fossum — who returned from the International Space Station on Nov. 21 — and Expedition 28 flight engineer Ronald J. Garan, Jr., appear in Copp's film. The astronauts, standing alongside Copp on stage, described the International Space Station as a sterile and disconnected environment. 

"Music is our connection to our beautiful planet we see from the station, " Garan says. "It's frustrating not to be able to share that."

In contrast to The Planets, the implied thematic connections are missing and it was up to Copp to translate musical ideas into narrative poetry. Mission accomplished.

Adds Fossum: "If a picture is worth a thousand words, music is worth a million. Music expresses our experience better than words ever could."

With The Planets, set to the music of Gustav Holst, Copp had earned international recognition through Houston Symphony tours and rentals from other ensembles in Cleveland, Greenville (S.C.), Lexington, Denver, Fort Worth, Seattle, Bergen (Norway) and Sydney. Yet the music doesn't always appeal to die-hard classical fans.

Not to dismiss Holst as a second-rate composer, but the music of The Planets has become cliché and programmed too often given the work's accessibility and direct extra-musical link: Art and science is a marketable theme du jour.

The music: Mission accomplished

In Orbit however, John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Richard Strauss' epic Also Sprach Zarathustra amplified the musical ante. The compositions are equally as virtuosic as Copp's task: In contrast to The Planets, the implied thematic connections are missing and it was up to Copp to translate musical ideas into narrative poetry. Mission accomplished.

With Short Ride, there's an implicit linear storyline. As the rhythmic ostinato and its variations are established by the wood block and brass, prelude images from Earth introduce footage that chronicles the countdown to blastoff. The minimalist work's first raucous climax echoes Discovery Shuttle's vie from thrust to 17,500 miles per hour. The gritty bass line hemiolas that propel the development section add dangerous drama, suggesting that things could go wrong in an instant. The shuttle levels off at 250 miles above he Earth's surface by the jubilant ending, when listeners are given a chance to relax, but only briefly.

Goose bumps from onset to the ultimate chord. 

 When the film zooms out capturing full views of the planet, which are used sparingly, it's as if Copp wanted viewers to leave Earth and consider homo sapiens insignificance in the infinite cosmos.

Fitting as that's how Adams described his 1986 fanfare: "You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn't?”

Copp reserved painterly surreal material — at times completely abstracted from its source like impressionist paintings that dissolve into color brushstrokes on close up  — for Strauss' symphonic poem.

The famed opening, made popular by Stanley Kubrick's 1968  film 2001: A Space Odyssey, reflects on daybreak as the intense Sun emerges from a tenebrous horizon. A lavish and lyrical visual banquet follows composed of waterways, mountain ranges, weather systems, urban centers at night, oceans, aurora borealis, the colorful glow at the edge of the stratosphere, the International Space Station and the shuttle. Earth is art.

Orbit is satisfyingly inconclusive, not unlike Also Sprach. When the film zooms out capturing full views of the planet, which are used sparingly, it's as if Copp wanted viewers to leave Earth and consider homo sapiens' insignificance in the infinite cosmos from an outsider's viewpoint. Strauss details Friedrich Nietzsche's world riddle theme by leaving the overarching key center up in the air. Whether that's C or B major, Copp leans into the unresolved philosophical ambiguity.

Where Orbit succeeds is that it is not just merely an interplay of the areas of intersection between arts and science. It probes existential matters than neither field can begin to explore without the other.

The premiere was a triumph for the Houston Sympony. Orbit will be in high demand for ensembles seeking variety in programming to bring in new audiences.     

Aaron Copland and Christopher Theofanidis

On first look, it may seem that Appalachian Spring and Theofanidis' Rainbow Body are removed from anything Orbit. As the works unfolded, the connection to the subjects explored in the evening's feature became evident. 

Copland's suite from the 1944 ballet uncovered the ethereal sustaining abilities of the musicians. Expansive flute, oboe, clarinet and violin solos rendered beyond a pictorial representation of the natural world. Rather, the interpretation layered psychological meaning to the American landscape from which Orbit begins. As a response to Hildegard von Bingen's medieval chants, Theofanidis' Rainbow Body, originally commissioned by the Houston Symphony and premiered in 2000, captured the essence of the human condition in a language not far removed from a melange of Adams' and Copland's own tonal vocabulary. 

Houston Symphony shows off

One run-through of Short Ride is not for the weak. It requires deep concentration and chops of steel. Executing it twice in one evening? That's showing off.

The four-minute joy ride was the encore of choice, validating that the Houston Symphony brass section, when challenged, has no problem hitting those notes high in the stratosphere again and again. Bravo.

Now, if we could only steal Guerrero from Nashville . . .