Upcoming Eric Whitacre: Deep Field, Godzilla, and More

I experienced a profound, deeply moving moment at rehearsal last night.

We in the Minnesota Chorale are preparing for a big concert week with the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by choral music superstar Eric Whitacre. As part of the program, we’re giving the world premiere of Eric Whitacre’s new work, Deep Field. This piece was inspired by the “deep field” photo taken by the Hubble Telescope—a photo created when NASA trained the telescope on what was previously thought to be an empty area of the night sky, and left the recorders running for several days. The resulting photo was remarkable; the sky wasn’t empty, but filled with nearly 3,000 celestial objects. It wasn’t just a picture of stars being born, but whole galaxies being born, moving across the universe, and colliding. There were sweeping nebulae that spanned incomprehensible distances. Cosmic life, cosmic death that stretched back nearly to the moment of creation. “Emptiness” was revealed to be fullness.

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Through his new composition, Eric has tried to capture this incomprehensible cosmic glory in sound. The music slides slowly and gently into focus, as if the human mind isn’t able to take it all in at once. The shimmering, otherworldliness of the vocal part is gorgeous, and I think most of us were profoundly moved by the experience of preparing this new work.

But then….

As I was leaving, with those ghostly musical echoes still singing in my ears, I turned toward my car and had my own celestial experience. The full moon had just cleared the city skyline, and was hanging vast and luminous over the street. All but filling the empty space between the buildings. I think I actually gasped. It was so low and bright, it took a second for my eyes to adjust to its yellow light—like Deep Field itself, the features only slowly came to focus and resolved. But once they did… the sight was beyond beautiful, and managed to be both humbling and inspiring at the same time.

A perfect coda for the evening.

* * *

Our concert runs May 8 – 10 at Orchestra Hall, and really should not be missed. It is part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s “American Voices series”—a set of concerts celebrating American music from the last 50 years or so, with particular emphasis on the music of living American composers.

The concert is particularly noteworthy due to the number of premieres on the program. In addition to Deep Field, there are orchestral premieres of Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque and Godzilla East Las Vegas!, as well as Steven Bryant’s Ecstatic Waters.

Anyone who cares about living classical music needs to drop whatever they’re doing to buy tickets here.

If you are still on the fence, let me provide a quick preview of what you’ll hear.

* * *

First, let me point out that in addition to all the new music, there’s another long-time favorite of mine on the docket: Aaron Copland’s Quiet City. I first ran across the work years back; it was filler on a CD by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra that I had purchased. Once the music started… well, it was love at first hear. Copland is of course famous for his ability to re-create the epic vastness of the American countryside, creating soundscapes that are tinged with loneliness, but also filled with inner strength. But in many ways, Quiet City feels like something closer to his heart—it portrays the loneliness of a vast American city. It is a loneliness that is paradoxical, and perhaps felt more keenly, because the lonely individual is surrounded by other people. The work is a wistful nocturne for strings that features two protagonists alone with their thoughts: a lone trumpeter playing on a slightly distant street corner, and a contrasting English horn close at hand. These two characters contrast and mimic each other, providing a haunting vision of a great city at sleep.

I vividly remember my first time hearing the piece live… it was part of a memorable concert with the Minnesota Orchestra with Manny Laureano and Marni Hougham taking the solos. In truth, part of what made it memorable is that due to the fact that the City of Minneapolis had ripped up the streets along the approach to Orchestra Hall to complete some utility work, and we only barely made it to our seats before they started dimming the lights (fortunately, I was not forced to fall back on my plan “B” and slip the usher a twenty to let us in). But once the music started, nothing else mattered; Manny and Marni are incomparable artists who pulled every ounce of emotion from that music. The result was a performance that was devastating and uplifting all at once.

You really do need to hear this… ideally, live.

* * *

Of course, the key draw of the program is to hear Eric Whitacre’s music—especially world premieres!—led by Eric himself.

I’m very curious to hear the much-loved Lux Aurumque in its orchestral version… the original a cappella choral work is one of Eric’s signature works. The piece was composed in 2000 on a commission from the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and dedicated to Dr. Jo-Michael Scheibe. In 2011 it was the basis for a “virtual choir” performance—a compilation of individual recordings submitted by 185 singers from 12 countries. The resulting video was hugely popular, and has been viewed on YouTube by more than four and a half million people. Beautiful, transcendent music.

But the concert is not just given over to transcendent, ethereal beauty—also on the program is the riotously comic Godzilla Eats Las Vegas! Eric remarks that “It took me seven years to get my bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. By the time I graduated, I was ready to eat Last Vegas.” The work came together at his first year at Juilliard, and is essentially the musical fleshing out of a truly awful movie script about Godzilla attacking Sin City. The script is provided in the program notes, and is a wonderful mish-mash of clichés trying to out-cliché each other. The village gods—such luminaries as Wayne Newton and Frank Sinatra—all make an appearance, and are ruthlessly stomped, as are jiggling showgirls, hapless tourists and more. Will an army of Elvis impersonators be enough to stop the onslaught? Half the fun is catching the musical “jokes” that abound, including riffs off of Daphnis and Chloe and Rite of Spring, various film scores, and 60’s era jazz.

I have to say, I hope the audience has as much fun as we had at our first rehearsal. At more than one point, Eric was forced to stop conducting, as he was laughing so hard. And the gusto with which we were throwing ourselves into our characters… well, sit back and enjoy.

Deep Field will also be a treat. As part of the performance, audience members (and listeners at home) are asked to play a previously downloaded app on their smartphone. The phones will display part of the “Deep Field” photograph and play one of a series of tracks that will blend into a gorgeous tone cluster, with our voices soaring above. (Again, the app has to be downloaded in advance of the concert. To do so, visit here and follow the links. It’s available for Apple and Droid.)

Perhaps one of the most meaningful works on the program is Stephen Paulus’s Pilgrim’s Hymn. Stephen was a good friend to both the Chorale and the Orchestra, and it’s still hard to believe he was taken from us so soon. What better way to pay tribute to him than by performing one of his best-loved works, one that contains a most fitting text by Michael Dennis Browne. At our rehearsal, Kathy Romey told about her involvement in getting Pilgrim’s Hymn to the public, recounting her conversations with Stephen and her encouragement for him to self-publish the work. It was touching, and served as a reminder of how close the Twin Cities are as a musical community—I am so grateful for how we support each other.

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I think Eric was moved by this story, too… after a moment of reflection, he smiled and responded, “I really should move to Minnesota.”

Yes, he should.

* * *

This weekend’s concert should be amazing. I hope you can make it to Orchestra Hall for one of the performances (act quickly if you don’t have tickets… few are left). You can also tune in to Minnesota Public Radio if you can’t make it in person—the concert will be broadcast and streamed live on Friday, May 8 at 8PM Central time.

Xochipilli

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One thought on “Upcoming Eric Whitacre: Deep Field, Godzilla, and More

  1. Pingback: Coming to Terms with Whitacre’s “Deep Field” | Mask of the Flower Prince

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