Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Dome Rings to “Sounds of the Spheres”

The Great Nebula in Orion, photographed through the 60-inch telescope at Mount Wilson in 1908.


Premieres by Vlasse, Constantino, Babcock, Mason, and McEncroe: Mount Wilson Observatory

Three days after Independence Day and 13 days before the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the third in this year’s series of summer Sunday afternoon concerts in the great dome of the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory was not only buttressed by history but also shadowed by the wagging finger of terrestrial nature, public viewing sessions having been cancelled only two nights before when the dome shook during the second major Ridgecrest earthquake, its epicenter around 100 miles north. 

Thus framed and freighted, in the event all was stability and indeed harmony: this was the first demonstration of what has been pretty clear since these concerts began in 2017, that the resonant acoustic of this unique venue would be as much a gift to voices as it is to instruments. Indeed, it was a double first, as the program consisted entirely of world premieres: six new single-movement vocal works—all slow to medium-paced and located in the generic hinterland bounded by song, scena, and cantata—from five living composers writing specifically for this venue and event, the brainchild of the series’ Artistic Director Cécilia Tsan and L.A.-based French/Greek composer Danaë Vlasse.

Danaë Vlasse introduces the concert; Dan Kohne standing on the left.

As Ms. Tsan was unable to be present, Ms. Vlasse acted as M.C., and after the never-failing engineering-theater thrill of the dome opening and then rotating, she began with a warm tribute to Dan Kohne, Mount Wilson Institute Board of Trustees member and the main mover behind the Observatory’s venture into concertizing. After this, she introduced her own first piece, Neptune

The planet Neptune, photographed
from Voyager 2 during its 1989 flyby.
The restricted performing area would preclude The Planets ever being heard here, but Ms. Vlasse’s 12-minute work, to her own verses, certainly shares the same mystic/mythic space as that eponymous movement from Holst’s mighty orchestral suite. Neptune is scored for two sopranos and harp, specifically “because the voice is the most ancient of instruments and today’s scientific revelations of the cosmos are based on the work established by the ancient Greeks, whose harp (the ‘lyre’) was developed as a mathematical study of string-ratios and acoustic frequencies.” 

Given its Largo marking, and the intricate interweaving and taxing leaps of the two high-lying vocal parts, Neptune demands absolute accuracy of pitch and smoothness of timbre to come off successfully. Hila Plitmann and Sangeeta Kaur, for whom Ms. Vlasse wrote the work, had all this and more, a mutual responsiveness and tenderness of articulation that—with the devoted accompaniment of Marcia Dickstein’s harp, from the most delicate ostinato shimmer to a powerfully strummed simulacrum of thunder—gave notice that the concert was going to be something truly special.

Hila Plitmann (l) and Sangeeta Kaur (r) sing Danaë Vlasse's Neptune, with Marcia Dickstein, harp.

A. E. Housman, 1910.
After this extended first piece came four shorter items, artfully sequenced in terms both of forces required and subject. First was Anthony Constantino’s setting for soprano, violin and harp of Stars, I Have Seen Them Fall, from A. E. Housman’s collection of “More Poems” (1936). To the composer, this poem adumbrates “an introspective, existential examination of futility. A dichotomy exists within this futility; fallen stars do not detract from the beauty of the skies, but likewise, rain does not dilute the salt in the sea. We live consistently within this dichotomy and have no choice but to accept it as it is.” 

Constantino’s brief, concentrated setting opens with a whispered harp tremolo, above which the violin (played here by Reina Inui) and voice at first alternate in freely chromatic lines before coming together against an uprushing harp glissando for a single powerful climax (“It rains into the sea”) that showed Hila Plitmann’s vocal resources could encompass thrilling power as well as refined purity, when needed.

Reina Inui.
The L.A.-based composer Bruce Babcock’s connection with Mount Wilson is positively dynastic. His father was a director of the observatory, while his grandfather worked for founder George Ellery Hale, who on one occasion in 1919 invited some guests to viewing sessions where "a lone musician, carrying and playing upon a small harp […] strolled through each building and out under the quiet pines, and the echoes of his music […] struck deeply into the consciousness of all who heard.” 

Alfred Noyes, 1922.
To the historic night in 1917 of “first light” through the 100-inch telescope, Hale invited the English poet Alfred Noyes. The experience inspired his epic poem Watchers of the Sky, from which Mr. Babcock set the final lines of the Prologue. The text begins “… I sing of those who caught the pure Promethean fire…” but the music, cradled throughout on barcarolle-like repetitions from the harp, eschews incendiary fervor in favor of gentle lyricism. Promethean Fire is scored, like the Constantino, for soprano, violin and harp, and Sangeeta Kaur perfectly projected its aspirational purity, supported as before by Ms. Inui and Ms. Dickstein.

Marcia Dickstein.
The fourth composer to present his own work, Todd Mason, added to this line-up a flute, played by Rachel Mellis, for the setting of his poem Where Our Innocence Once Stood. To Vlasse’s embrace of a single celestial object, Constantino’s philosophical paradox, and Babcock’s celebration of discovery, Mason added an awestruck reaching-out to the illimitable substance and processes of the universe itself, taking in not only its grandeur but also violence in music less anchored to tonality than its predecessors in the recital. Ms. Plitmann once again demonstrated her vocal range and power in a work that I would be particularly glad to hear again.

Mark McEncroe.
The only composer not present was the Australian Mark John McEncroe, whose Into the Realm of Dark Matter gave the vocal and violin soloists a well-earned break (though not the stalwart harpist) and brought in the 14-strong Sterling Ensemble, directed by Michelle Jensen. Danaë Vlasse introduced the work on Mr. McEncroe's behalf:

“… I’m taking artistic license to interpret my impressions and my feelings at the thought of this immense ill-defined mass we call Dark Matter; for me the mere fact of its unknown substance makes it seem quietly dangerous. Dark Matter is constant and utterly enveloping, so I invite the listener to come into a state of trance, filled with a sense of intuition but never truly understanding where the music may go...”

The Sterling Ensemble.

Though the melismatic wordless vocalizing sounded beguilingly celestial in the dome (how the choral masterpieces of the Renaissance would resound here!), any sense of that “quietly dangerous unknown substance” was confined to subtle and, for me, unduly innocuous harmonic shifts, making the music’s progress a little too predictable—the only disappointment on the program.

Shea Welsh.
Early arrivals outside the dome had been treated to choral sounds wafting from the aperture far overhead and drifting like dappled aural sunlight amongst the trees—rehearsals, it turned out, for the finale, Danaë Vlasse’s Rainbow Nebulae. All the forces apart from the flute were mustered for this, with the addition of a guitar played by Shea Welsh. Again setting her own verses, “inspired by the multi-colored beauty of nebulae emerging from the blackness of space,” Ms. Vlasse’s hope that “the music and the poetry convey for you the sense of awe I feel for these massive cosmic nests of life where stars are born” was certainly fulfilled for this listener.

l-r: Michelle Jensen, Bruce Babcock, Sangeeta Kaur, Danaë Vlasse, Todd Mason,
Anthony Constantino.
Danaë Vlasse with singing bowls.
After an introduction of dark, close choral harmonies over an accompaniment—initially on guitar and then joined by the harp—which continued throughout, rhythmically unchanged but in slow flux harmonically, the main body of the piece proceeded to a radiant climax through the repetition and major/minor variations of an immediately memorable main theme shared between the violin and the two vocal soloists—Ms. Plitmann, Ms. Kaur, and Ms. Inui as ever in perfect accord, and with their colleagues. 

In other circumstances, and maybe a less totally committed performance, it might have seemed a little saccharine, but this context and location negated all reservation, leaving the audience hypnotized by its beauty. Rainbow Nebulae was the perfect conclusion… except that it wasn’t, quite. A brief encore, Song of Compassion, written for the same soloists and chorus for inclusion on an upcoming album by Sangeeta Kaur, and with the arresting accompaniment of singing glass bowls manipulated by Danaë Vlasse herself, set the seal on an afternoon of positively “I-was-there” memorability. 


"Sounds of the Spheres", 100-inch telescope dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 7 July 2019, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Photos: Orion Nebula: Nautilus; Neptune: Nasa; Performers and composers: Todd Mason, Morgan Vlasse; A. E. Housman: Wikimedia Commons; Alfred Noyes: National Portrait Gallery; Mark McEncroe: Navona Records.

• With thanks to all the composers for access to their scores, and especially to Danaë Vlasse for enablement.
• The 100-inch telescope dome acoustic can be heard on the live recording of improvised Native American flute music entitled "Under the Stars”, by Joanne Lazzaro.
• Next month (Sunday August 4): one of the greatest of all chamber works, Schubert's String Quintet in C major D.956, played by the Lyris Quartet and Cécilia Tsan.

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