CONCERT REVIEW: Space: A Giant Leap

The California Philharmonic goes where no orchestra has gone before

By Christina Linhardt

3, 2, 1, Blast Off! On July 28th, 2019, the California Philharmonic in cooperation with NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory/CalTech transformed the entire Walt Disney Concert Hall into a gigantic space ship, going where no orchestra has gone before. Cal Phil Chairman and Principal Scientist at JPL, Dr. Kevin Baines, enthusiastically addressed the audience prior to the opening of the concert with, “I’ve been waiting for more than a year for this!” He explained that this concert was in honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, celebrating humanity’s connection to space exploration, starting three million years ago with early moon-watchers in 2001: A Space Odyssey, through the Roman period and all the way into the future with music of Sci-Fi’s greatest hits. He then introduced the luminaries in the audience, including members from the Planetary Society, JPL, Cal Tech, and Dr. Linda Spilker, Project Scientist for the Cassini mission, which travelled to Saturn. Before the afternoon even took off, a sense of significance filled the atmosphere.

“The Man with the Music,” Maestro Victor Vener, exploded on to the stage as Timm Boatman performed an extended drum roll to kick off the US national anthem as the audience stood up to sing along, producing a reverent rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. Then a low rumbling, like the launching of a rocket ship, crescendoed throughout the concert hall as the clarion call of the trumpets resounded, followed by the pounding of the timpani. Pianist Bryan Pezzone, like a phantom count illuminated in the organ loft, struck the keys of the organ for the first minute and a half of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” known to the popular world as the theme from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Following the earth-shattering opener, Dr. Vener in his signature style which makes him the most beloved conductor on the 3rd rock from the sun, turned around to chat with the audience, giving a little background on the next pieces, “Mars” and “Jupiter” from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” In his pre-show talk, he had revealed that Holst had been an astrologer and wrote “The Planets” about the Roman Gods of the same names. As an especial treat accompanying the exalted music, never before seen images (courtesy of Preston Dyches and JPL) were projected on a screen above the orchestra. The Cal Phil drove the ominous 5/4 meter of “Mars, Bringer of War” with the tapping of bows and low bassoons and brass, while the red planet appeared larger and larger on screen. The sheer prowess of the musicians provided the perfect score for the visual exploration of Mars through select photos Cal Phil audiences were privileged enough to first witness. “Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity” opened with the splendid French horn line, while the colorful bands of the planet with its mysterious red eye appeared. The orchestra progressed into the lush 2nd theme of Holst’s Jupiter, a melody so gorgeous it became an official song in the Church of England’s hymnal. Awe-inspiring images with awe-inspiring music.

To conduct the 4th movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, Maestro Vener introduced his assistant conductor, the up and coming Tigran Arakelyan, who accredited Victor Vener as his inspirational figure. Maestro Arekelyan also noted how rare an orchestra the California Philharmonic is, to be able play so many different styles at such a high level. His crisp and concise conducting style engaged the musicians, evoking all the colors and subtleties necessary for a proper Mozart interpretation.

“Now we’re going to deal with the Titans,” Dr. Vener said, introducing the last piece of the first half of the show. Gustav Maler’s Symphony No. 1, “Titan,” received mixed reviews when it first premiered as it went so “against the grain.” But the “stormily agitated” 4th movement was perfect for this cosmic concert, with its “neurotic and angry” beginning giving way to “hope and happiness.” No small feat, the musicians captured the mood and pathos of Mahler, his soul-wrenching musical emotions, while the multiple layers of Saturn’s rings, like the multiple layers of Mahler’s music, became visible. The moon, Titan, a world of its own, revealed tumbling rivers of methane, boulders, gasses, and clouds, much like the sonic tapestry of the symphony. Truly out of this world.

As the audience returned from intermission, still in a meditative trance from the aural sensations, without a word the Maestro immediately propelled into the Star Wars “Imperial March” by John Williams. Only in Southern California and only with the Cal Phil can concert-goers be so lucky as to hear such acclaimed movie music performed live by the actual musicians who played on the timeless movie scores. “Well, we attempted to get Darth Vader to attend,” the Maestro joked after they finished the piece. Yet it wasn’t necessary, the instrumentalists practically summoned the Storm Troopers with their bold and magnetic playing. For James Horner’s “Apollo 13” cue, more exquisite shots of the moon, rockets, and astronauts, courtesy of Preston and JPL, materialized, all the while the noble brass roared, the orchestra swelled, and one felt a sense of pride regarding the accomplishments of scientists and mathematicians, composers and musicians, who can literally and figuratively take us to the moon and back. As if the images and music weren’t spectacular enough, an actor adorned in the exact astronaut costume from First Man floated on stage waving an American flag.

“Sit back and be awed,” Dr. Vener proposed for the Star Trek “Through the Ages” score by Jerry Goldsmith. It was 7th heaven for any Trekkies out there to hear the adored and archetypal music while being visually engrossed in sights beyond the human imagination of far out nebulae beyond our solar system. One could only marvel at the great mysteriousness of the universe. The E.T. Suite transported us all across the star-clad night sky, the image of kids and an adorable extraterrestrial flying on bikes emblazoned in our memories. Appropriately, the Star Wars Finale closed the empyrean performance. Only the California Philharmonic can take us to a galaxy far, far away, blazing a trail across the final frontier!

Philharmonia Association