Look, up in the sky? Is it a bird? Is it Big Blue Madness? No, it’s the Lexington Philharmonic, under the direction of Scott Terrell, descending on the Lexington Opera House this weekend for two evenings of music inspired by heroes.
The program, which was performed Friday night and repeats Saturday night, opened with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, "Eroica." The dedicatee the composer had in mind is not important here, for ultimately, Beethoven himself is the true hero, as we witness him finding his distinct voice, straining at the limits of convention in this revolutionary work.
The acoustics in the Opera House are harshly unforgiving, which means that every slight variance in intonation and ensemble, every ragged entrance, was stripped bare. Yes, we want to hear Beethoven’s human struggle as he obsesses with his themes, but the lack of resonance in the hall rendered them strangely bloodless. Attacks disappeared immediately, with few moments of power and surprise. I kept waiting for some warmth of sound, but it rarely registered. Though interesting to hear dead silences throughout the funeral march, it robbed the movement of weight. This spare atmosphere worked much better later in the work, especially the fleet final movement, which benefited most from the clarity of individual instruments: the variation featuring string quartet was beautifully intimate and expressive. If you came expecting the classical enlightenment composer Beethoven, this transparency worked. For those of us expecting to be lifted out of our seats by the impassioned romantic Beethoven, the performance just didn’t take flight.
But look, up in the sky, again! It’s Icarus — the boy who flew with man-made wings of feathers and wax. Most of us first encountered this cautionary tale as children, and like many fables, fairy tales, and myths, the lessons are learned in the hardest ways — through tragic loss. Not heeding his father’s advice, Icarus flies too close to the sun, his wings melt, and he falls into the sea.
As human beings, we have trouble with simple directives, but tell us a story and we understand. Physicist Brian Greene adapted this particular story in his children’s book Icarus at the Edge of Time. It may be a bit much to ask children to understand the concept of black holes and Einstein’s theories of time and gravity, but Greene succeeds in cleverly updating the story while also subtly subverting it. Though the cost is dear, Icarus, who now flies his spacecraft toward a black hole, finds that his rebelliousness has made him a legend, and he emerges as a hero.
While a board book might be sufficient for children, we now require a larger canvas, so filmmakers Al Holmes and Al Taylor brought the story to the big screen, which was projected above the Philharmonic and set to music.
To be honest, I expected little from the musical setting by Phillip Glass. Or rather, I privately joked that if I were to choose someone to illustrate how gravity slows down time, I could think of no better composer than Glass to bring the evening to a standstill.
What a great surprise, then, to find within seconds that this is his most varied, colorful, and interesting work I’ve heard in a while. It matches perfectly the kaleidoscopic images the filmmakers have created. The score never stops, so we don’t have to worry about the bottom dropping out during any silences. The music is relentless, yet constantly, inventively evolves, and the orchestra performed with utter confidence and panache. Does the music stand on its own? I suspect it does, but as a whole — visuals, music, and narration made more evocative by playwright David Henry Hwang and delivered with dramatic flair by Kentucky poet laureate Frank X. Walker — this is gorgeous art. It’s more Georges Méliès than Richard Wagner, and while we can’t hope to experience the utter newness of A Trip to the Moon, we can fly awfully close.
The performance was dedicated to beloved and respected local musician Jay Flippin, who passed away earlier this week. He showed us all that one can remain close to home and still better the world. He is a hero, indeed.