By Joseph E. Morgan
It has been 50 years since the release of Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Who can forget the epic opening credits that paired the brilliant cinematography of the rising of the sun from space with the opening movement of Richard Strauss’ high romantic and ultra-heroic Also Sprach Zarathustra. On Friday, January 13, 2018 the Nashville Symphony produced the second concert of their HD Odyssey series, Earth, which featured stunning images taken from NASA paired with a complete performance of Strauss’ tone poem. This was appropriately preceded by John Adam’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine given with images and a video of a Space Shuttle launch. Before intermission, to open the evening, Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter performed Frédéric Chopin’s First Piano Concerto in in E minor.
Chopin wrote his first concerto when he was just twenty years old, and it was premiered in one of his farewell to Poland concerts before he departed for France. In most concertos, but even more so in this one, the success of the performance depends upon the pianist. Chopin’s writing for the orchestra is intended above all to stay out of the pianist’s way and Fliter’s interpretation on Friday was direct and penetrating. Her singing tone, despite all of the remarkable ornamentation, brought out the intimacy of the movement and allowed the expanse of the first movement’s proportions to develop comfortably as if it were an afternoon outing. This was impossibly heightened in the second movement, which Chopin described in a letter to a friend as a “Romance,” a “kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.” After all of this Romantic distraction, Chopin the Polish patriotand revolutionary made his appearance in the third movement, with a dance from Krakow. This Fliter played with happy abandon—it was a marvelous performance and I was disappointed that we, in the audience, could not convince her to give it an encore.
After intermission, with the big screen lowered, the video of the Space Shuttle launch beganwith the exciting opening of Adam’s piece, marked by the a continuous woodblock, sparkling strings and a horn fanfares. Watching the shuttle launch brought to mind the exhilarating yet naïve confidence we have in our technology, all the more emphasized by the accumulated rhythmic dissonances as Adam’s piece blindly rushes ever forward. Nostalgia for the days of exploration that the shuttle represents were quickly balanced by the memory and reality of the Challenger and Columbia tragedies.
The filming for the Strauss was likely done from satellite and provides some amazing footage of the Earth, from the Northern lights to the orange deserts to the deep blue sea, the images are mesmerizing and magnificent. Particularly the opening scene, set to Strauss’ famous opening, the earth rises onto the screen in outstanding beauty. Strauss wrote that movement to depict the dawn of man, and it ties (as Kubrick noted long ago) quite nicely to images from space. The difficulty with the program are the interior movements when Strauss, following Nietzsche, wanted to depict “the idea of the development of the human race.” More ambiguous movements went fine, such as the “of Joys and Passions,” however “The Grave Song” and “Of Science” (with an extraordinary fugue) seemed rather disconnected from the images on the screen, beautiful as they were. The performance was remarkable, with Nashville’s horns in splendid shape, and the images were quite beautiful, they just weren’t necessarily synched. These trivial things aside, the evening was wonderful, and I look forward to the third installment in 2018-19, The Cosmos.
On February 1 the Nashville Symphony’s classical calendar continues with Joyce Yang performing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s magnificent Second Piano Concerto.