'Star Wars,' in classical music's galaxy

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2011; C12

"New audiences" are the elusive holy grail of the classical music business. This weekend, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra went after them with both hands - and a couple of "Star Wars" stormtroopers.

Seen from one point of view, the program - which came to Strathmore on Saturday - was a new-music program. It included works by Mark-Anthony Turnage, a high-quality enfant terrible among British composers (his opera based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith is opening at the Royal Opera House in February) and by Philip Glass. The Glass piece, "Icarus at the Edge of Time," was a new piece that the BSO co-commissioned. (It had its premiere in New York last June.)

Seen from another, it was a kids' evening, aggressively aimed at a younger market. "Icarus" is based on a children's book by the physicist Brian Greene, a retelling of the Greek myth updated for a science-fiction age, and the piece was conceived as a film project, accompanying a movie by British filmmakers Al Holmes and Al Taylor. Rounding out the program, and the space theme, was a suite from John Williams's "Star Wars," complete with stormtroopers escorting Marin Alsop, the project's instigator and the evening's conductor, onto the podium, and flanking Darth Vader in the lobby for photo ops before the show and at intermission.

This is the point at which some purists begin ruffling up their neck feathers and making spluttering noises about the purity of the art form, but I'm not going to go there. It's fine to mix things up once in a while, and the BSO marketed the program to the right audience: at least there were a lot of kids there, visibly eager to have their pictures taken with Darth Vader. (At intermission, one exquisitely dressed little girl even timidly presented him with a Hershey's bar.) Obviously, this is not fare for every subscription audience, but at this point, orchestras playing film scores and video-game scores is practically standard operating procedure, at least a couple of times a season, and people know to turn up in costume. (I am not altogether sure whether one Ewok who attended on Saturday was hired for the occasion or was an audience member who had shown up in appropriate attire.)

What was actually most interesting about the program is what it said about the genre known as film music. "Film music" is a kind of buzzword among classical fans for something that's not quite up to our putative standards. I have certainly been guilty of using the term pejoratively, more than once, to describe passages of Technicolor music, pretty but schmaltzy, in various works. I'm not the only person to do this, and it is always intensely annoying to the many serious devotees of film scores.

Given this long-simmering contrast, there was something subversive about juxtaposing the John Williams suite with the Philip Glass score. The Williams piece - seven selections from across the "Star Wars" spectrum - sounded like archetypal classical music, full of big gestures, thick orchestrations and familiar leitmotifs. I could practically conjure up the action when the orchestra played the final throne-room music from the original "Star Wars" movie, though I never fully noticed the Prokofiev-like sardonic bite to the brass, or the punching syncopations of the contrasting string chords. The Glass, by contrast, kept to a gentle simmer, offering the composer's trademark wafting arpeggios (grown darker and more richly colored over the years) to support - or, literally, to underscore - what was happening on the screen above the players: a visual collage of actor, colors and space images that seemed heavily influenced by the last half-hour of "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Williams's influences from the standard classical repertory are well established by now; parts of this piece have been a staple for more than 30 years. Indeed, it's better established in our musical culture than most contemporary works. This isn't, of course, a qualitative measure, but it is arguably a reason why even purists should be less uptight about letting it into the concert hall.

Full disclosure: I missed the opening Turnage piece, so I can't fully evaluate the program as a whole. What I did see was a pleasant, entertaining evening; not quite my cup of tea, but a nice thing to have around. The orchestra had a couple of surprising ragged edges during the Williams, though the suite played to Alsop's energetic strengths; the Glass was mellower and more assured; and "Icarus," to close the circle still further, proved to be based on science-fiction tropes that were current around the time the first "Star Wars" appeared on movie screens. It was prefaced by a 10-minute lecture-presentation on black holes by Greene that was lively and informative, but, as far as pushing the envelope of the concert experience, may have represented a bit too much of a good thing.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company