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Virginia Symphony in cooperation with the Outer Banks Forum

Music Culture & Culture-An Odyssey into Space on Saturday Evening

Kip Tabb

Music has a transformative power, carrying within its notes the ability to transport us to remarkable places within our memories.

For some—a bit older perhaps—the William Tell Overture inevitably leads to a hardy “Heigh Ho, Silver!” When the first notes of John Williams “Theme from Star Wars” is struck suddenly you’re in a galaxy a long long time ago.

Conductor Adam Turner opened the Virginia Symphony’s performance at First Flight High School on Saturday night with Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” 

From the first notes of that amazing full-throated fanfare, with the primal pounding of the timpani, the opening sequence of “2001 A Space Odyssey” becomes real once again. It is the moment the predecessor to humanity discovers a an intact femur, realizes its horrific power as a weapon and the the world is changed.

It was the perfect way to begin an evening of music entitled “From the Earth to the Moon and Beyond.”

What made the evening so compelling was more than the music which was absolutely outstanding. Coupled with the music were pieces of multi-media presentations. And there was also a heartfelt tribute to a hero of American space exploration.

The tribute was to Katherine Johnson, the African-American woman whose 36 year career at NASA broke through racial and gender barriers.

What made the tribute particularly moving was Johnson’s niece, Beverly Baker, is the principal violist for the orchestra.

In her tribute Baker created an image of someone who embraced life. She told the story of her aunt’s day in September of 2017 when NASA named a research facility at Langley after her— the Katherine Johnson Computational Research Facility. Johnson, 99 years old was there. 

That night she attended a Virginia Symphony concert. Thinking that after a full day, her aunt would be tired and not wish to attend. But she was there. Perhaps after intermission she would decide to slow down. 

But the second act music was the Planets by Gustav Holst, and Johnson was not going to miss that.

“She sat through all eight planets,” Baker said. “I realized this past weekend that the last piece that she heard was ‘The Planet’ and how fitting that was for the life she lived.”

The first selection of the night was from the Mars movement from Holst’s “The Planets.”

It is a wonderfully descriptive piece with the brass sections seeming to fight with each other. The percussion pounds out a steady pulsing beat that suggests war drums. Even when the strings come in there is an underlying tension that hints at violence lurking just beneath the surface.

It was an evocative add powerful way to set the mood for  the evening and it worked beautifully.

Although the music is the centerpiece of an evening with a symphony orchestra, the  order in which the selections are performed can make the experience better. Turner as the conductor proved himself a master.

He followed the heavy almost pounding sound of Mars with Dvorak’s “Song to the Moon” with soprano Symone Harcum providing the vocals. Light and airy it seemed to balance the power of Mars.

Generally in classical concerts, full compositions from composers are played. That was not the case on Saturday night. The evening was filled with music that suggested images that represented space.

After “Song to the Moon” it was Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” (Light of the Moon), a five minute piece followed by Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” which has become indelibly entwined with the classic Audrey Hepburn movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

This performance of “Moon River” was as good as it gets. Hearing a full orchestra with each instrument seeming to have a voice of its own seems to create a powerful image of two drifters truly off to see the world.

Symone Harcum was one of the highlights of the evening. After her tour-de-force performance of the”Song to the Moon” she performed “Old Devil Moon,” a classic show tune. She changed just enough of how she approached the song to do the tune justice.

Mozart is not usually associated with space exploration, but his Symphony No. 41, often called his Jupiter Symphony was perfect for the evening. Only the fourth movement was played, a rousing fast moving piece of music.

Then to calm the waters, Turner followed that with Ricard Strauss’ “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.”

It is one of the most popular pieces of music imaginable, but for anyone who has seen “2001 A Space Odyssey,” it’s difficult to hear the music and not thing of astronauts drifting through space in waltz time.

The final selection of the evening was very interesting. Telling the story of the past 50 years of NASA’s space exploration, James Beckel’s “From the Earth to the Moon and Beyond,” is a multi-media presentation featuring images projected on a screen behind the orchestra and narration.

With narration provided by Christopher Palestrant, the piece is far more than the history of NASA and its race to the moon and beyond. Rather it goes all the way back to the big bang and weaves a thread of events all the way to the present day.

It is a challenging, complex piece of music and narrative, and worth every moment of the experience.

“From the Earth…” was not actually the final piece. Following a standing ovation, the orchestra returned for an encore to perform John Williams “Theme to Star Wars.” As fitting a finale as there could be.

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