By Montague Gammon III
Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s NASA Langley Centennial celebration concerts soar from Newport News to Neptune and beyond, going galactic after a brief orchestral orbit.
Of course, the race to space did not start a century ago, but it was in 1917, as World War 1 was raging, that the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory was founded and work on Langley Field begun. (Two years before, Congress had created NASA’s ancestor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics: NACA.)
The Symphony launches these three concerts with contemporary composer Randall Svane’s Quantum Flight, a short piece that spins through the various parts of the orchestra with what VSO Music Director JoAnn Falletta describes as the sound of “a whirling galaxy.”
That’s followed by another recent work, The Bass Whisperer, co-composed by Conni Ellisor and its featured soloist, 5 time Grammy winning electric bass player and Newport News native, Victor L. Wooten. (Wooten might be the first VSO soloist to be cited by rock mag Rolling Stone for instrumental excellence.)
Gustav Holst’s familiar work, The Planets, termed by Falletta “a brilliant piece from beginning to end,” makes up the second half of the program.
Quantum Flight has a soaring sound that suggests conventional flight, and then, after hints of Glass and other minimalists, breaks through into something like lyricism, as if slipping the “surly bonds” of Earth’s gravity and departing our atmosphere.
Falletta notes that Svane “has family in our area,” and will be at the concerts to speak about his piece. She calls Quantum Fight both “a dazzling tribute to the galaxy” and “a brilliant way to open the program.”
This the first time that the Virginia Symphony has played a Svane composition, and even Falletta’s first time conducting anything he has written.
“It’s exciting,” she concludes.
The Bass Whisperer is another piece to which Falletta applies the term “exciting.” Actually, she said on the phone it is “very, very exciting,” especially when it “lets him (Wooten) cut loose” with the improvisation which is part of the “genius of his work on the electric bass.”
She calls this 38-minute work “A very successful marriage between a classical orchestra and jazz improvisation.”
While Falletta says that Whisperer is linked to the Svane and Holst pieces primarily through the geographical coincidence of Wooten’s Newport News upbringing, it is difficult not to hear, after an other-worldly sort of count-down, something like a pulse-jet propulsive rhythm in the work’s opening moments, and a Milky Way etherealism cropping up throughout.
“He’s become one of the greatest and most lauded bass players of all time. The fact that he’s going to open our season is a great idea.”
“The electric base is right at home in the middle of the orchestra.”
Gustav Holst called his seven movement orchestral suite The Planets a “series of mood pieces.” Like Langley it dates to the WW1 era, when Pluto was unknown.
“Mars, The Bringer of War” and “Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity” are, Falletta agrees, the most well known movements, but there is much more to the work.
“The movements are much less about the planets than about the gods for whom they are named; he makes that clear with the subtitles… It’s spectacular writing — Mercury is a perfect interpretation of the god Mercury, this kind of quicksilver, darting, light music…“Saturn the Bringer of Old Age,” a tolling of the clock…eerie…“Uranus, The Magician,” a magician of the Dark kind…then of course, “Neptune, The Mystic,” an expression of the eternity.”
Finally, in an “expression of time going on…representing the unknown in this musical way,” the piece fades away, like a spaceship leaving the galaxy for the infinite reaches of the universe.
WANT TO GO?
Virginia Symphony Orchestra with
Women of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra Chorus and
Victor Wooten, electric bass
JoAnn Falletta conductor
Robert Shoup, chorusmaster
8:00 p.m., Sept. 22, Ferguson Center for the Arts, Newport News
8:00 p.m., Sept. 23, Chrysler Hall, Norfolk
2:30 p.m. Sept. 24, Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, Virginia Beach