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REVIEW: Christopher Theofanidis’ ‘The Legend of the Northern Lights’ Is a Wild Ride Through Space and Time

By Louise Burton l.burton@classicalite.com on Aug 11, 2014 11:20 AM EDT

The music begins abruptly, jolting the lawn crowd at Millennium Park out of their reveries. They look up to see a huge globe filling the screen, spinning quickly to the dramatic, pulsing music from the orchestra below. Christopher Theofanidis' new work, The Legend of the Northern Lights, has begun. Hang on, because it's a wild ride.

Conductor Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra expertly navigated this virtuosic work on Saturday night, bringing a crystal clarity to even the most demanding passages. This outstanding new work was also performed on Friday night as part of the Grant Park Music Festival, and the two performances constituted its world premiere.

The multimedia work tells a story about the Northern Lights through music, video and narration, all of which came together beautifully in service of the story on Saturday night.

The narrator, played by Frank Babbitt, describes the snowy landscape of the Northern Canadian wilderness where the Northern Lights can be seen. He is speaking to his young grandson, played by Nicholas Black. In response to the grandson's question about where the Northern Lights come from, the grandfather launches into a story.

The tale involves a strange, cloaked visitor who knocks on the door of a trapper's cabin in the woods. As he enters, you see that he is so thin he is almost transparent.

When the visitor finally opens his mouth, he sings instead of speaking, which was initially surprising, but his eerie song (sung by Babbitt) gives him even more of an otherworldly air.

When the visitor brings out his violin and begins playing, a green stream of sound issues from his violin and rises higher and higher. The violin music, sensitively played here by concertmaster Jeremy Black, is a delicately unfurling melody that climbs higher until it disappears in the ether, where the Northern Lights begin to glimmer in the sky.

The Northern Lights imagery was filmed by astronomer José Francisco Salgado, on location in Northern Canada. At first the lights are pastel and very faint, but their colors became deeper and richer as they flow across the sky in Salgado's time-lapse videos: deep ruby reds and fluorescent greens, issuing forth in sheets and folds; great chartreuse ribbons that unfurl across the sky; curtains of green and yellow light, ruffled by solar winds.

It's a fantastic light show, reminiscent of the psychedelic imagery of interstellar flight and alien landscapes in Stanley Kubrick's iconic film 2001: a Space Odyssey.

What music is appropriate for such a show? Before I heard this composition, I thought that the music of the Northern Lights should be ethereal and celestial, filled with cascading harp glissandos, that sort of thing. But Theofanidis has written music of a more dramatic nature, full of energy and excitement, yet with an admirable clarity of sound, even in the fastest passages.

Then the vantage point shifts, and we see images of the Northern Lights from space, faraway green ribbons flying across the polar regions of the Earth, filmed by the Canadian Space Agency. We catch a glimpse, too, of the solar panels of a spacecraft. It could be the otherworldly visitor's spaceship, departing from Earth.

It's an exciting show, with stunning visual images and thrilling orchestral writing to match. It may not equal Theofanidis' "Rainbow Body" for the beauty of its melodies, but there is great dramatic power in this music. The score could stand on its own, even without the video, but the two together are quite thrilling to behold.

The only criticism I have of this work is that it needs a more definite ending; the imagery just stops, after a great Straussian crescendo on the final chord from the orchestra. It would be better to end with an image of the alien visitor's spaceship streaking across the sky, back to the world from whence he came, or some other image that gives the narrative a sense of closure.

The crystal clarity of Theofanidis' orchestral writing provided a welcome contrast to the evening's main course, the lushly romantic Symphony No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, performed on the first half of this program.

Some critics have complained that the lyrical passages in this symphony are overly sweet--the empty calories of the symphonic repertoire. But Carlos Kalmar's interpretation on Saturday night didn't settle for mere superficial beauty.

He led the orchestra in an exploration of this familiar work's expressive possibilities, probing the emotions of the long, lyrical phrases and drawing from the strings, in particular, a lovely lush sound that transcended mere saccharine sweetness.

The entire orchestra responded readily to Kalmar's rubato phrasing in the slower passages, drawing out the phrases to their greatest expressive extent before effortlessly flowing back into tempo. Their eloquent phrasing, along with the warm, lovely sound of the violins and cellos, made it possible for those who were listening closely to hear this familiar work with new ears.

No wonder the two people sitting next to me, who were at the Friday performance, came back to hear it again on Saturday night.

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TagsREVIEW, Christopher Theofanidis, The Legend of the Northern Lights, Grant Park Orchestra, Carlos Kalmar, Millennium Park, Grant Park Music Festival, José Francisco Salgado, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Symphony No. 2, Rainbow Body