Is the third time a charm? Often not, but it was in the third and final ISO concert celebrating the Cosmos in Music and our evolving relationship to it. ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański got his riding legs on Friday as he masterfully surveyed Richard Strauss' half-hour tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896), Op. 30. As surely most people are now aware, its opening fanfare has become a cultural icon since its use as an introductory to Stanley Kubrick's most celebrated science fiction movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's heard everywhere, especially serving as the music track for TV commercials. But Urbański made us hear it the "right" way, capping an evening dedicated to the film-track music for 2001.
Gyorgy Ligeti's Atmospheres for Orchestra (1961) began the Cosmos tribute, being heard unedited in the movie, its succession of tone clusters hanging over the prehistoric ape-men scene, as they survey the huge monolith appearing there to mark the start of a new epoch in man's gradual rise to prominence, as his forbearers learned from the monolith to eat meat. Tone clusters refer to a good part or all of the orchestra playing and holding a phalanx of notes, remaining static as they swell and ebb, in some cases for minutes at a time. Even though we saw Urbański actually following the score for Atmospheres, there was no way discern the performance quality . . . no rhythm, too many notes sounding continuously. We take his dynamic shading solely on faith.
Next came Aram Khachaturian's "Gayane's Adagio," an excerpt from his Gayane Ballet, from which also came the world famous "Sabre Dance" which our audience might have preferred. It featured more held pitches, but fewer enough that harmonies sneaked through the fabric. Once again it was elusive evaluating the performance owing to a lack of forward motion. I can't recall the movie scene in which this Adagio is excerpted. Urbański also conducted this work with a score.
As the movie shifts from prehistoric man to "2001," and we see a space station orbiting above the earth, the sound track intones The Blue Danube waltzes of Johann Strauss Jr. Which is what follows the Khachaturian in 2016. This medley of waltzes needs, as they say, no introduction--regardless of the fact that Strauss Jr. put in a short one. I thought our conductor took these waltzes at too leisurely a pace; I wanted to hear more lilt.
Of Strauss's nine tone poems (including Macbeth, Sinfonia Domestica and An Alpine Symphony), Also Sprach Zarathustra is musically, if not programmatically, among his best. Inspired by philosopher Friederich Nietzche's novel of the same name, its contents are most assuredly not required to enjoy Strauss' music, which on its own, however, seems somewhat philosophic. For this work, Urbański cast away the score and conducted from memory, though reportedly this was his first live performance of Zarathustra. In any case, it was an excellent one as our music director wove his way with ease through the work's nine parts, some connected, some not. As our orchestra played together and stayed together, Urbański rode herd on all the ensemble's shaping: dynamic levels, precision, tempos and their nuances. It was a memorable performance. Feb. 5