So Long Lives This: Aaron Grad and Augustine Mercante at the Mansion at Strathmore, May 15, 2014

Posted May 17, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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Composer Aaron Grad doesn’t feel constrained by conventional models; he fashions his means of expression to suit his end. For example: His cycle of Old-Fashioned Love Songs, written for his wife and commissioned by Strathmore, where it received its DMV premiere on Thursday night.

In the cycle, Alexandria-born Grad sets to music poems by…him, written largely in metrical rhyming verse. He also includes songs by composers as diverse as Henry Purcell and Cyndi Lauper, recontextualizing the tunes to his own ends as necessary. The only instrument Grad calls for is an electric theorbo, which he built and plays, although he said in a post-concert Q&A that he isn’t quite adept at playing it yet. All these songs were sung by Augustine Mercante, a music-school chum of Grad’s, who used his fine countertenor voice in any musical style Grad asked him to.

Aaron Grad. Photo from his website.

Aaron Grad. Photo from his website.

Sounds like a lot of ideas for one opus, but Grad has enough skill to make these disparate elements and novelties coalesce. The electric theorbo has an intimidating array of strings and outputs, but its general sounds are familiar enough: haunting strummed chords, percussive twangs, gently plucked melodies that hung sweetly in the air. (I was momentarily surprised when Grad used a sampler to layer on textures, but then, instruments can do that now.) It’s an old-fashioned instrument refashioned for modern purposes, and Grad made it sound good. It sounded particularly good tracing the close arpeggiated harmonies in Johann Hieronymus Kapsberger’s “Toccata No. 2,” which is the first music in Grad’s cycle and dates all the way from 1604.

The cycle actually opens with a spoken recitation of Grad’s “Preamble,” with the preamble set to music after Kapsberger has his moment. Grad’s poems are pretty sturdily constructed, with some witty turns, particularly in “Music Theory” — “Dissonance for its own sake/Is such a load of hooey!/We don’t needlessly complicate/Our composition, do we?” He is not entirely immune to the lure of a fine cliche, but like any good postmodernist he owns up to them: “A foolish quest this is, to bare my heart/Through tired, worn-out conventions.”

But he doesn’t just acknowledge the dead language; he gives it some new life. Part of this success comes from seeing in the songs by others a through-line across the centuries, particularly with the same vocalist and instrument enlisted to bring them to life. Part comes from how Grad cannily comments on the songs of other authorship; Stephen Foster’s “Kissing in the Dark” gets intro’ed by Grad’s “Risk Management,” a monologue of a nervous lover, in which the theorbo bristles with tension but also propels the music forward into the sweet oasis of the Foster. A reprise confirms that the risk has been successfully managed.

The whole thing wouldn’t work without Mercante. Grad tailored the cycle specifically to his voice, and so Mercante sounded extraordinary, a gorgeous voice that shifted from sparkling William Boyce to swinging George Gershwin without breaking a sweat. The sheer purity and high-ness of his male voice gave a timeless, universal feel Grad’s words as well, suiting a cycle that deals in big thoughts about love rather than specific thoughts about a person.

The closing two songs of the cycle both showed some of Grad’s best moves and scaled the steepest emotional heights. Normally, Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” reads as a lovers’ retreat, but Grad prefaced it with “The Poetics of Loss,” which begins, “If we cannot speak of death, Let us simply say: away.” Grad’s arrangement of the accompaniment, spare and clean, reinforced the new interpretation; once the song was done, the music slowly but surely rolled back into the Kapsberger with which the cycle began. All sorts of ideas and juxtapositions informed these moments, but Grad’s singular vision and skilled realization made them matter.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler. More about the song cycle here.

Scaling the Timpanist’s Heights: Jauvon Gilliam in the NSO’s New Moves Festival

Posted May 8, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Previews

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Jauvon  Gilliam is the National Symphony Orchestra’s principal timpani. Michael Lodico at Ionarts calls him “superb,” and his boss Christoph Eschenbach describes his technique as “supreme.” I agree, although I’m biased, because I’m also his cousin. And since I now tend to be more of a rooter and less of a critic when I go to NSO shows, I haven’t been writing much about them lately. For Jauvon’s upcoming solo timpani concerto, though, I had to take advantage of my connection and find out more. The results are below.

Each of the three programs in the National Symphony Orchestra’s “New Moves” festival, running from yesterday to May 17, features a new dance set to the strains of a vibrant American work. But when Jauvon Gilliam, the NSO’s principal timpani, picks up his sticks to perform James Oliverio’s Timpani Concerto No. 1, he’ll be performing a dance of his own, albeit one hidden from public view by the eight timpani that’ll be surrounding him.

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Jauvon will not be surrounded by quite this many timpani, but it’ll be a lot. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Not everyone who attends orchestral concerts knows that the timpani is not a fixed-pitch instrument; drummers tune them through the use of a foot pedal. So to play the right notes, you have to have both your hands and your feet in the right spot. With the typical orchestral complement of four timpani, this is challenging enough; as Gilliam says, “it’s like a choreographed dance. You can overshoot it, you can undershoot it, it’s just like if you do a pirouette.” To really master the instrument, “you almost have to have four different brains or have your brain in four different compartments.”

Twice as many timpani involves more than twice as much difficulty: “Where my feet go on the floor, where my feet go on this drum, which one goes on which one — I have to write all of it down so I can practice it, because the idea is to play it perfect the first time. So I’m actually practicing those type of choreographed moves just as much as I practice the notes.”

The result is physically taxing — Gilliam says he works up a sweat just in practice — but he’s determined to hide his efforts from the crowd. In composing the concerto, Gilliam says, “James uses the visual aspect of playing the outer drums and shifting your body weight, and the challenge is to make it look graceful. To make it look easy. Which is really hard, because my body doesn’t bend that way.”

Gilliam knows the composer’s intentions because he worked with Oliverio to prepare the piece. It’s well known among students of the timpani, and in fact Gilliam’s teacher Paul Yanich premiered the work 24 years to the day before Gilliam will play it with the NSO. So when the NSO reached out to Gilliam to ask about performing an American concerto for the “New Moves” festival, the timpanist got in touch with the composer, who gave him valuable ideas about the concerto but understood that Gilliam would put his own stamp on the piece as well. “He’s a cool cat,” Gilliam says.

Playing eight timpani not only makes for a challenge but also allows Gilliam to explore the melodic potential of the instrument. “With four drums, you could only play two notes of melody, two notes of harmony, or one note of harmony, three notes of melody. It’s not very many,” he says. “With eight timpani, it allows me to have five notes of melody and basically a two-note ostinato in my right hand, in some of the more challenging parts.” And indeed, the timpanist is the melodic protagonist in this concerto, leading dialogues with orchestral instruments and even a cadenza towards the end.

It’s an unusual role for an instrument that normally sits in the back and makes everything sound fuller and more forceful, but Gilliam doesn’t mind the change. “My job is to support people. I really enjoy that, that’s what I love about my job,” he says, but performing a solo is a “different way of doing things, and it allows me to expand my talent. It allows me to be a better musician.”

The concerto is also, he says, “the hardest thing I’ve ever played” — a challenge worthy of the title “The Olympian,” and a summit only scalable for a man who’s sure on his feet.

If you also want to have the experience of hearing Jauvon talk about this concerto, you can listen here. And he even wrote a blog entry about the concerto, which I recommend.

I also recommend the other concerts in the New Moves series. One has Sue Heineman, the NSO’s principal bassoon, playing a concerto, and you know I like her playing based on this, this, and this. And the other is Leila Josefowicz playing John Adams’ violin concerto, which I liked a ton when she did it with the Balmer Symphony. Looks like a strong week ahead for the NSO.

Spring Into Dance: University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, May 4, 2014

Posted May 6, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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The University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra performed a fully choreographed version of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” on Sunday afternoon at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. They didn’t accompany the dancing; they were the dancers, throwing themselves into choreography by famed dance-maker Liz Lerman. This follows up on a UMSO/Lerman triumph of two years previous, a similar effort to the strains of Claude Debussy’s “Prelude a l’après-midi d’une faune,” which you can kind of get the idea of from this video. I watched the video from the previous concert but didn’t attend, and so I didn’t realize how much the movement would transform the music as well as the visual experience of a concert. The word’s overused, but this truly was an unforgettable experience.

And it was an experience framed in memory: Martha Wittman came onto the dark stage and sat down: an older woman paging slowly through a book with a smile on her face. Wittman, who not only danced but also collaborated on the choreography, seemed to be awakening the opening measures with her reminiscences; she eventually found a younger foil in U-Md. conducting student Enrico Lopez-Yanez, whose energy inspired Wittman to match as the music sped merrily along. The framing actions (no program was supplied) served to make the stage into a festive reminiscence, with the musicians garbed in rustic attire appropriate to an Appalachian get-together.

Some of the musicians danced with more ease than others, which is to be expected, but they all threw themselves into their moves and played more than creditably while doing so. Indeed, every so often Lerman, along with choreographic collaborator Vincent Thomas, pressed the students to the edge of reasonable possibility, and the UMSO accepted all the challenges: A double-bassist scrambling across the stage carrying his instrument above his head, a bassoonist standing on a fellow musician’s back and delivering a fine solo, a flautist throwing himself into vigorous dancing one minute and playing with perfect breath in the next. That’s commitment, folks.

This is from rehearsal, but it totally happened live. Photo by Kirsten Poulsen-House.

This is from rehearsal, but it totally happened live. Photo by Kirsten Poulsen-House.

Still, the revelation for me came not in the dancing itself, but what it did to the music when the musicians formed and dissolved their various constellations on the Dekelboum Concert Hall’s stage. Instrumental combos that would never sit next to each other (trumpets and violins side-by-side? Sure!) made familiar sounds newly piquant. Textures thinned out, opened up, and at times felt kaleidoscopic, as when string players walked in circles, and you could hear individual notes from the unison playing fade in and out ever so slightly. Woodwinds scattered across the stage to call to each other, underlining Copland’s playful writing and giving it a visual dimension. Especially vigorous rhythms actually got stomped out by the musicians who were playing them, as they advanced from the rear risers. Music that’s always evoked a country celebration in my mind seemed to actually belong to one. And I got goosebumps when a bunch of the musicians strode purposefully to the very front of the stage to blast the climactic statement of “Simple Gifts,” both from the earnest straightforwardness and the sheer volume of sound.

James Ross, the artistic director of the UMSO, masterminded all this effort but was nowhere to be found on stage until the applause started. Being conductorless, too, seemed to liberate and excite the musicians; they had so many responsibilities that they had to be really present, all the time. After that final “Simple Gifts” statement, the music recedes into that twilight memory space again, and Wittman’s character returned to her book; the final touching moment for me was watching a percussion player and harpist nodding to each other as they played the sweet final notes under sustained strings.

It was inevitably a bit of a letdown to hear two pieces after intermission in the standard orchestral configuration, with Ross at the front and everyone sitting down, not that I expect any orchestra to be able to put together a fully choreographed program. (Yes, that’s a dare!)

Robert Russell Bennett’s “Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture” clothed George Gershwin’s immortal tunes in sometimes overfine symphonic garb, overemphasizing the blue notes that were natural to Gershwin. The students romped through it anyway, but I filed the arrangement in the category of “fun but I never need to hear it again.” On the other hand, Henri Dutilleux’s Metaboles, five small-scale works for large-scale orchestra, gleamed with clarity and quivered with tension, orchestral colors bursting from every measure – a showpiece well-shown. And yet, in years to come, it’s the dance I’ll remember.

Other People’s Perspectives: Anne Midgette. More photos available here, in case you’re wondering what it looked like. 

Update: Video now available!

Narrative through Notes: Brian Ganz at the Music Center at Strathmore, February 22, 2014

Posted February 25, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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The fourth in Brian Ganz‘s series of concerts at the Music Center at Strathmore traversing the piano works of Frederic Chopin was titled “Chopin, the Storyteller,” but Ganz has always been telling stories through Chopin’s music, stories that help to animate everything from the earliest mazurka to the most celebrated ballade. The 2014 installment of the series just put it in the title.

Ganz addressing the Strathmore crowd on Saturday. Photo from his Facebook page.

Ganz addressing the Strathmore crowd on Saturday. Photo from his Facebook page.

As always, Ganz provided some remarks from the stage that were stimulating if you knew Chopin’s music well and helpful to focus your attention if you were exploring the repertoire through this concert. Ganz found evidence of Chopin’s narrative gift in his music’s immediacy (especially as Chopin worked with shorter forms), pacing, and his courage to explore the darker places. Fair assessments all!

Yet I was struck anew at this concert by the tension Chopin gets from ambiguity: the same phrase recast with a slight flicker in harmony that calls into question what’s come before, or a melody proceeding tentatively, doubling back on itself, unsure of where to take its next step. Ganz draws out these details, and it’s what makes his performances of works like the Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17 no. 4, so remarkable. I’ve rarely wanted to both sit in stillness for a minute and stand up and cheer like I did after Ganz played this music on Saturday.

Ganz also keeps a sure rhythmic sense through all his careful explorations, which helped animate performances of the two Op. 65 waltzes that were somewhat slower than you often hear, and which made the Variationes brilliantes and the concert-closing Scherzo No. 4 as dazzling as the composer intended. It’s of a piece with his overall approach, which balances in-the-moment concentration and spontaneity with a keen feeling for the overall shape of the work.

The most dramatic test of Ganz’s concentration and hold over the audience came in his performance of the Ballade no. 4 in F minor. As he wound up to a grand climax of fortissimo chords, he leaned back just a little, milking a pause. During the silence, someone in the chorister seats shouted “All right!”, sounding like Otto the bus driver from “The Simpsons.” The audience tittered, and suddenly the spell cast by the performance seemed fragile. Yet Ganz trusted himself and the music, playing five soft chords slowly, with a ringing tone, to bring everything back to Chopin.

The National Philharmonic of Montgomery County, which sponsors Ganz’s series, will host Ganz on March 8 and 9 to play some more Chopin, specifically the first piano concerto. If you missed last Saturday’s concert, it’s another opportunity to hear an outstanding Chopin interpreter doing what he does best.

THE KIDS WERE KIND OF ANNOYING, THOUGH

The National Philharmonic has a commendable “All Kids Free, All the Time” policy that allows those from ages 7 to 17 to attend without paying. This has undoubtedly exposed many youths to inspiring music. On Saturday, it exposed the 7-year-old-looking boy in front of me to what seemed to be his worst nightmare, as incredibly antsy boredom in the concert’s first half yielded to desperate appeals for sleep in the second half, appeals only answered when he took it upon himself to go to sleep on the floor, to much murmuring from the adults who had dragged him to the concert. He remained asleep after the concert ended and he was picked up from the floor. The whole thing was remarkably distracting. I am not sure whether there are any larger lessons to be drawn from it, but it seemed worth mentioning.

A Place of Greater Safety: 18th Street Singers at First Trinity Lutheran Church, January 24, 2014

Posted January 27, 2014 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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Unlike the other 18th Street Singers concerts I’ve heard, there was zero pop music in this year’s winter program (which I caught on Friday; it was repeated on Saturday). Instead, artistic director Benjamin Olinksy and the chorus presented a program entitled “Beauty in the Cathedral” (although they sang in their usual winter-concert spot, First Trinity Lutheran Church). The program juxtaposed ancient polyphony by the likes of Josquin Desprez and Tomás Luis de Victoria with modern works influenced by the old styles from composers like Sergei Rachmaninov, Maurice Duruflé, and Herbert Howells.

The music played well to the 18th Streeters’ strengths: With Olinsky conducting, their sound blossoms warmly even in dissonances or tight contrapuntal spaces (although the sopranos sometimes became screechy at the top of their range on Friday, with the altos occasionally disappearing). Just as important as their sound, they make sure you can hear the words they are singing, so you can actually follow the effects the composers used to illuminate the texts.

As if to prove the point, a couple of pairs of settings presented the thoughts of ancients versus moderns, with versions of “Exsultate Deo” by Palestrina and Francis Poulenc providing an especially piquant contrast: smooth Renaissance homophony and rhythmic oddities and dissonances, the same words filtered through different musical notions of joy and exaltation.

The Singers did an especially good thing in presenting Howells’ Requiem, a work underheard in concert. Howells juxtaposes impassioned settings of brief fragments of the requiem text with settings of answering psalms that begin as monody but blossom into more. The whole thing is not a note longer than it needs to be and more powerful for it, as Howells perfectly integrates his Tudor influences into a personal style and structure. Olinsky led a performance that met Howells’ passion with equal fervor from the singers.

Howells would probably have enjoyed this performance. From the Howells Trust.

Howells would probably have enjoyed this performance. From the Howells Trust.

Howells’ Requiem was the only large-scale work on the program; otherwise, shorter works in which rhythm typically took a back seat to harmony dominated. Individually, they expressed the theme of “sanctuary” that Olinsky outlined in remarks during the concert; collectively, they sometimes felt like a series of applications of balm to already well-moisturized skin, especially in the nice warm acoustic of First Trinity. “Tomorrow shall be my dancing-day,” a Christmas carol a little late, got the pulse up before intermission. Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Komm, Jesu, komm,” should have done the same to end the concert, but the choir didn’t bring out rhythmic vigor of the motet’s fugal section.

Still, this concert was an achievement for Olinsky and the 18th Street Singers, who continue to present concerts largely composed of semi-obscure music that becomes fresh and vital in their performances. Plus, they filled a church with people to hear it! As the strains of “Shenandoah,” an obligatory song for this group, echoed in an encore, you could feel the community in the room – the music had become a personal offering from the singers to the audience. In this sense too, the group created a space of sanctuary on Friday night.

I’ll Be Baroque For Christmas: Bach Sinfonia at Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center, December 14, 2013

Posted December 15, 2013 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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The annually recurring problem for Christmas-concert presenters: Do you gently tweak the standard Holiday Classix and risk boredom among your more inquisitive types? Or do you bring in something completely novel, skirting the edge of that indefinable quality of “Christmassy”?

The Bach Sinfonia, in its first holiday concert, probably had a little more room to operate than most, since people coming to the Sinfonia expect to hear something unfamiliar, or something they know in an unfamiliar way. Saturday’s concert offered both and, despite occasional hiccups, succeeded in both teaching a few things and celebrating the season.

Conductor and artistic director Daniel Abraham told the audience that this was one of the few local concerts to emphasize instrumental Christmas music, and the Sinfonia delivered a sparkling performance of Arcangelo Corelli’s Op. 6 no. 8 concerto grosso, designated as a “Christmas concerto,” with textures clear in the small ensemble and vibrant rhythms driven by the indefatigable Douglas Poplin on violoncello. The performance of Giuseppe Torelli’s Op. 8 no. 6, with its ending pastorale specifically designated for Christmas, had the same virtues but also a few spectacular violin flubs.

Most of the highlights came when Nola Richardson was singing. She has an agile, pretty soprano voice that worked extremely well in Bach’s challenging  cantata “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen.” Richardson confidently traversed its many, many, many runs while pronouncing all those unruly German diphthongs and remembering/managing to ornament the repeats. In the slower aria, with a chance to catch her breath, her voice really shone, with just a little vibrato and expressive tone that captured the anticipation of Advent effectively.

nolarichardson

Photo of Nola Richardson from her website, taken by Joan Pedersen in 2009.

Richardson also sang a wonderful “Let the bright seraphim” from Handel’s “Samson,” with trumpeter Stanley Curtis proving a more effective foil here than he did in the cantata. The “Domine Deus” from Vivaldi’s “Gloria” was an unexpected repertoire choice, but I’d listen to Richardson sing it in almost any context, and the music tied into Abraham’s theme of Christmas as expressed through the pastorale. The “Pifa” pastorale from Handel’s “Messiah” accomplished the triple win of fitting in with the rest of the program, actually being from the Christmas part of that seldom-heard oratorio, and allowing us to hear Richardson sing a really brisk “Rejoice greatly,” which was a good idea.

Richardson was also by far the best singer during the audience sing-alongs. Lacking in significant familial duties and needing pocket money, I reviewed an absolute ton of holiday concerts during my time at the Post, and the single most challenging sing-along in which I have ever participated was on Saturday: Trying to navigate the original rhythm of the “Coventry Carol,” which apparently mixed and matched duple and triple rhythms within the bars of the refrain. It was kind of bewildering, but also strange and beautiful, and I learned something new about the carol while still being plunged into the Christmas spirit.

Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler.

In Their Orbits: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Music Center at Strathmore, November 8, 2013

Posted November 10, 2013 by Andrew Lindemann Malone
Categories: Concert review

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The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”  the “Off the Cuff” treatment on Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore. In this series, music director Marin Alsop prefaces the full performance of the lucky opus with a discussion, as the BSO plays little illustrative snippets of the work as well as related music.

Because I am going to complain a bit about the pre-concert discussion, now is the time to state very clearly that the main point of going to a concert is to hear great music, and Alsop and the BSO delivered just about everything you want to hear in a performance of “The Planets” on Friday. The performance burst with color and energy of nearly (wait for it) astronomical proportions. (Joke sold!)

None of those little rocks gets its own movement because no one on Earth believed they had any influence on our personalities. Photo from National Geographic.

None of those little rocks gets its own movement because no one on Earth believed they had any influence on our personalities. Photo from National Geographic.

The horns, in particular, turned it loose, giving their dissonances an almost physcial force in “Mars,” bumping along merrily with a round, rich sound in “Jupiter,” pounding home the rhythm in “Neptune.” The basses, so often playing without cellos over them in Holst’s suite, made a solid shelf of sound even when quietly underpinning the rest of the ensemble. First among its excellent efforts, the BSO’s percussion section gave us some perfectly on-point glockenspiel playing, and I kept being reminded on Friday how important that is in “The Planets.” The offstage chorus in “Neptune,” the women of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, sat way up in the top tier of the hall so no one could tell where they were, giving additional effectiveness to their otherworldly ostinatos. The only quibble I can come up with is that sometimes the internal machinations of the orchestra in fast passages didn’t come off completely clearly, but Alsop did a great job guiding the orchestra through Holst’s complex rhythms and hemiolas while keeping up forceful momentum throughout.

Before the concert, Alsop discussed Holst’s conception of the planets, largely drawn from astrology, and she brought in astrophysicist Dr. Mario Livio, of the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute, to discuss the real planets. No attempt was made to bridge the discussions, and it wasn’t clear which discussion was supposed to be more illuminating for the concert. The gorgeous photos of the real planets shown while the music was being played heightened the confusion, as we saw Venus’ clouds of sulfuric acid and remembered Dr. Livio’s discussion of Venus’ typical high temperatures in the 800s while listening to the winds and (dynamite) glockenspiel paint a peaceful picture.

Alsop also kept pronouncing Holst’s name “Holts,” and in general sounded a little more detatched than she has in some of her discussions, rattling off an evidently prewritten discussion of the life of the composer at hyperspeed. She did a good job highlighting the tritone interval but then almost apologized for having done so, apparently deciding that the info was too technical for a general audience. The “Off the Cuff” people are here to learn — bring on the intervallic discussion!

On the plus side, Alsop made some good jokes, and heaven knows classical music can stand a few more laffs. Dr. Livio brought a similar sense of humor and a genial stage presence worthy of a man who’s made a second professional success in the realm of popularizing science. And the turn of the images onscreen from Neptune to evocations of Voyager leaving the solar system, as the Choral Arts Society folks sang us out, added an extra sensation to the already transcendent fade-out, capping a tremendously satisfying performance. Just a little more care with the “Off the Cuff” elements, specifically the exposition and how to juxtapose astronomy and astrology, would have made for an evening that was (I’m going to do it again) out of this world.

FORGOT ABOUT DRE?

Well, I haven’t. It’s been three years and still no competition for Big Gustav in the realm of instrumental planets-themed suites from the legendary hip-hop producer, meaning I cannot make a playlist juxtaposing G. Holst and A. Young side-by-side, which would pretty much be the highlight of my music-fan life. Oddisee, step into the breach for the DMV!


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