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Fermi in music

Several people questioned the use of an image of Enrico Fermi in my post about orchestras’ educational initiatives last week. There were two reasons. One is that it’s a picture of someone explaining something that’s fairly clear and elegant, yet impenetrable to the uninitiated, which is what classical music looks like to an awful lot of people. The other is that Fermi’s name was bound up with a big orchestral-educational initiative in Washington last night: the world premiere of a symphony, commissioned in honor of the one-year anniversary in orbit of the launch of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope: a work, in short, that combined music and science, with results not entirely beneficial to either discipline.

The symphony, "Cosmic Reflection," was commissioned by Pierre Schwob, the force behind the website Classical Archives, which, he said, officially launched last night, though the site has been around since 1994, and made a surprisingly big press push this spring for a site that hadn’t launched yet. No matter: Classical Archives is a worthy addition to the landscape, an all-classical alternative to subscriptions sites like Rhapsody. Unlimited listening to thousands of albums for $9.95 a month, with an option to buy downloads, is a pretty good deal, and the catalogue is fairly deep, though there are still inevitably kinks to work out. Schwob, born in Switzerland, is a self-made Internet tycoon with a passion for science and music; he endowed Stanford's Kavli Institute with $1 million in 2004, and has commissioned two works (the symphony being the second) from Nolan Gasser, a composer who also serves as Classical Archives's artistic director.
(read more after the jump)

Schwob also co-authored the lengthy narrative about the birth of the universe and the life and death of stars that accompanied Gasser’s music in a piece that amounted to a kind of “Enoch Arden” equivalent for science geeks, only more tedious. Carey Harrison, son of Rex, wearing a white garment that made it appear he was playing God, intoned majestically, often shouting to be heard over the Boston University Symphony Orchestra under David Hoose. (The event was the conclusion of the InCite Arts Festival, a Boston University project that came to Washington this weekend.) The text wasn’t terrible so much as dull (“Deep within the core of the stars, intense pressure and temperature trigger the onset of nuclear fusion”), but its relationship to the music was wearyingly predictable: melodramatic pauses followed by melodramatic musical gestures, while a film from NASA played overhead, like a junior-high science movie.

Gasser, perhaps wisely, kept his music attractive and innocuous, turning up the bombast when required, but remaining in the general film-score arena. That he’s a musical was clear from the deliberately "contemporary" stance of his other piece on the program, the more angular and quirky "GLAST Prelude," performed by the American Brass Quintet, written to celebrate the telescope’s launch last year.

The evening was a perfect example of a well-meaning educational-style initiative that should keep young audiences – a lot of students appeared to be present last night – away in droves from similar events in future. It didn’t lack for star power, though: the emcee was Alfre Woodard, who was announced earlier in the day as a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (which also includes the ubiquitous Yo Yo Ma). Perhaps this news made her nervous; she engagingly tripped over a number of phrases which she had to correct, introducing the Boston University Symphony Orchestra as the Boston Symphony Orchestra (they were good, but not THAT good), and, even better, calling Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony the “Indistinguishable,” rather than the “Inextinguishable.” Everyone's a critic.

By Anne Midgette  |  November 3, 2009; 6:38 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews , music on the Web  
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“That he’s a musical was clear from the deliberately "contemporary" stance of his other piece on the program, the more angular and quirky "GLAST Prelude," performed by the American Brass Quintet, written to celebrate the telescope’s launch last year.” (Anne Midgette)

Another example of well-meaning – but inscrutable – Washington Post music criticism that should keep young audiences away in droves from classical music in the future?

Posted by: snaketime1 | November 3, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I am disappointed that the reviewer did not actually review any of the musical performances of the evening. I suppose if I had my own review column, I would not have been able to resist a lengthy diatribe against the dubious and well, downright silly premise of the Gasser piece for narrator and orchestra, complete with white robe (Obi-Wan Kenobi or God, take your pick) Pierre Schwob's boring text, and totally substandard video from NASA. But what of the excellent playing of the BU Symphony Orchestra? What about the elegant conducting of their leader and their riveting and textured performance of the Nielsen Fourth Symphony? Hardly "indistinguishable" to my ears, and certainly worth mentioning in this "review" of the concert. I found myself wondering what such an obviously skilled and talented orchestra was doing mixed up in this confused project in the first place.

Posted by: haverybildsnorm | November 6, 2009 9:27 AM | Report abuse

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