There was much to look at as well as much to listen to on Wednesday evening in Millennium Park as Marin Alsop, conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, led the Grant Park Orchestra in Osvaldo Golijov’s exquisite soundscape “Azul” and Philip Glass’ “LIFE: A Journey Through Time” The latter piece is adapted from works originally composed for smaller ensembles or solo instruments, arranged for full orchestra by Michael Riesman, and used as the score for a multi-media presentation of the photographs of Frans Lanting, a National Geographic photographer who specializes in the natural world.
First came “Azul” (or “Blue”), a fascinating evocation of the sounds of the natural world and the human imagination. In a brief and charming talk before the performance, Golijov, an Argentinean composer of Jewish heritage who now lives in Massachusetts, explained that the work, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for its 125th anniversary, was inspired by the many times he relaxed on the lawn outside the Tanglewood Music Center, the orchestra’s summer home. As he explained it: “I wanted to replicate the experience of gazing up at the sky in the form of a journey — a sort of cosmic birth, flying into the universe.”
Scored for orchestra and four soloists — all extraordinary here, and including cellist Alisa Weilerstein (in a notably stunning red gown), Michael Ward-Bergeman (offering a complementary “hum” on hyper-accordion, an acoustic accordion of his own design, with extended expressive capabilities), percussionist/drummer Jamey Haddad and Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista (a master of maracas, colorful shakers, bells and more).
Golijov’s score makes magical use of his orchestra, from a full complement of cellos to a vivid brass section, to produce richly layered suggestions of natural sounds that range from birds and insects to a more momentous sense of the shifts in the greater cosmos from agitation to calm. The composer also shifts rhythms with ease, moving from a hint of Latin at one point, to an almost Indian raga-like beat at another, and moving back and forth from the most lyrical to the most cacophonous passages.
“Azul” may be about nature, but hearing it played outdoors turned out to be a very mixed blessing. It is a work of great sonic subtlety and detail, much of which got drowned out by the overall urban buzz surrounding Millennium Park. I look forward to hearing it again in a far more intimate, indoor setting.
The Glass/Lanting piece fared better outside. Purists might complain that “LIFE” renders Glass’ music secondary to the visuals, but I would disagree. The repetition and change that is at the very core of Glass’ music (which, as is happens, is more variable and overtly colorful than is often the case here) serves as a perfect echo of the essential processes involved in evolution — the essential subject of Lanting’s work.
As the photographer explained it in his enthusiastic introductory remarks, his images (with what is very aptly termed “the visual choreography” by Alexander V. Nichols, and editing by Christine Eckstrom) trace the ascent of our restless planet. They follow the processes that took it from the transformation of energy into matter; the emergence of water and fire and many different terrains; the development of the very earliest creatures (jellyfish, frogs, snails, and then crabs); the growth of seaweed, ferns and flowering plants; the arrival of birds and mammals, and then (though barely observable), the arrival of humans.
Observe these often strange, beautiful, grotesque and amazing images (whose complexity is heightened in closeup), and you cannot help but be bedazzled by nature’s seemingly infinite variations of color, texture, patterning, modes of motion and overall “engineering.”
This concert also was a celebration of the work of MacArthur Fellows (a distinction both Alsop and Weilerstein share). And the conductor took the opportunity to note that she used the money from her 2005 MacArthur Foundation “genius award” to establish an after-school music program in Baltimore that “reached about 30 kids when it began in 2008, and now has 1,100 playing instruments.” Separately, Lanting praised the MacArthur for its generous funding aimed at protecting bio-diversity.
NOTE: Alsop will return to the stage of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park (at 6:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday) for another adventurously mixed-and-matched program on “immigration and assimilation.” It will feature Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 9 in E Minor” (“From the New World”), along with “Harlem Symphony,” the work of James P. Johnson (known as “the king of New York jazz pianists” throughout the 1930s, and the composer of “Charleston”) and vocal works by Duke Ellington. Regina Carter will be solo violinist.