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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Concert Review: Man vs. Monolith

The New York Philharmonic plays 2001: A Space Odyssey.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Here's looking at you, Earth. The Star-Child (formerly David Bowman)
from the last scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Image © 1968 MGM/Turner Films.
It's not every day that the New York Philharmonic draws thunderous applause for performing the relatively obscure works of Gyorgi Ligeti, the iconoclastic Hungarian composer who remains one of the most important musical voices of the latter half of the 20th century.

It's also not every day that Avery Fisher Hall is invaded by man-apes, monoliths and mad computers with a tendency to commit homicide in the depths of space between Mars and Jupiter. To say nothing of secretive government bureaucrats, ice-blooded astronauts and a psychedelic light show that still confuses viewers 45 minutes after its premiere.

On Friday night, Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic performed the complete score of Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. The concert, which featured a complete screening of the sci-fi epic above the Avery Fisher Hall stage was part of Film Week, a special concert series designed to drum up interest in the 2013-14 season of New York's oldest orchestra.

Mr. Gilbert and his players were clad in black, with the conductor working from a digital clock mounted on his lectern. They started with the film's Prologue, the first appearance of Ligeti's music in the score. The wordless, shifting chords evoked the toxic air of an alien planet, accompanied by a wordless choir in lower tier box seats on either side of the house. There was something alien about the choir in the dark theater, made unearthly by the LED lights that they used to follow the score.

And then it came. The organ and contrabass pedal that opens the Dawn movement of Richard Strauss' tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra and the three-note major third ascent that even the most hardened classical music critic will sometimes refer to as the "2001 theme" in passing. And then the climactic trumpet note and cymbal clash gave way to pounding timpani that shook the hall with power.

No other piece of adapted movie music is so close in spirit to its film--this epiction of man's triumph and folly is the perfect accompaniment to the story: a set of five dramatic sequences (by Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clarke) depicting man's struggle to understand his place in the universe. Maybe the music's importance overwhelms the sparse dialogue. Or maybe the otherworldly sounds of Ligeti and the conventional waltzes of Johann Strauss (the ballet-like trip to the lunar Clavius Base is set to The Blue Danube) provide a tenuous grip on reality for the viewer even as they bear the full impact of Kubrick's imagery.

It could be argued that there is something explicitly Nietzchean in 2001, in the survival struggles of the man-apes, as their leader saves the tribe by figuring out how to use tools. The appearance of the Monolith is always accompanied by the strange sounds of Ligeti, an alien soundtrack especially to those listeners unfamiliar with the composer. (Here the choral part was sung by the excellent Musica Sacra under the direction of Kent Tritle.)

The first glimpse of the doomed Discovery mission (that has only one determined survivor) is set to the music of Khachaturian As the mechanism of the script forces astronaut David Bowman (Kier Dullea) to confront the infinite on his own he is reborn as a kind of "Superman", a celestial child with infinite options of creation or destruction. And the Zarathustra theme (now the "2001" theme) sounds again.

The importance of Zarathustra in the overall story of 2001 does not diminish the impact of the other works carefully selected by the director to accompany this very odd film. Watching the movie again in a vast auditorium, the very strangeness of this work came prominently to the fore. Audience members laughed at the homicidal lines uttered by the mad computer HAL 9000, not realizing the cruelty of the two astronauts who shared HAL's space on the Discovery. The famous lobotomy scene (where David Bowman literally pulls out Hal's circuits) was mercifully brief. The same cannot be said for the Blue Danube moon journey, treated here as a routine flight on a now-extinct airine known as Pan American. On the bright side the orchestra's waltz skills were in full effect.

As David Bowman ended his earthly (and unearthly) existence to be reborn, the Zarathustra--excuse me--2001 theme sounded once more. The Star-Child looked knowingly at the audience as the last chords played. And then the orchestra broke into a gorgeous, final Blue Danube, accompanied by the closing credits. There was applause for Stanley Kubrick. There was applause for Douglas Trumbull, the visual effects master, and for the composers as their credits were listed. And as the orchestra finished the entire waltz, they were met with a triumphant and well-earned ovation.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.