The Music Of The Spheres

Engaging scientist Mario Livio will once again put an astrophysicist's spin on a BSO program

March 29, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

To open its Explorer Series last November, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra had the benefit of an exceedingly engaging expert on exploration -- Mario Livio.

This senior astrophysicist at the Johns Hopkins University's Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute gave the audience an introduction into the nature of nebula and other galactic phenomena. Astonishing images of such things, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and chosen by Livio, were then shown as counterpoint to a performance of a gripping work by Christopher Theofanidis called Rainbow Body.

"I was very hesitant to do that presentation," Livio says. "When you go to a concert, you come to listen to the music. You don't come for a lecture or a theatrical performance. But everybody appeared to be enthusiastic about the program. Maybe they were just being polite."

Actually, his incisive, unscripted, often witty remarks easily deserved all the applause. And there's every reason to believe that things will turn out just as well now that Livio is back with the BSO as host beginning tonight of another audio/visual exploration. The topic this time is symmetry, a subject particularly suited to this Romanian-born author of the much-praised book The Golden Ratio, about the never-ending number called phi and its significance in mathematics and the physical world.

"Symmetry is very central to the laws of nature and, of course, music," says Livio. "I will try to explain why symmetry is so important to us. Everyone knows it when we see it, but why?"

The BSO, led by British conductor James Judd, will play three works on the program: Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3, Mozart's Symphony No. 40 and Transfigured Night (Verklarte Nacht) by Arnold Schoenberg, the composer who led the way toward atonality in the 20th century.

"It is very easy to think symmetry and Bach and Mozart," Livio says. "With Schoenberg, I don't think symmetry is the first thing that comes to most people's minds. But if there is a way to transform people's opinions about Schoenberg, this is the piece to do it."

Transfigured Night is based on a Richard Demel poem about a woman pregnant by one man but in love with another, and how the couple resolves the conflicts. It was composed in 1899, years before Schoenberg took his revolutionary turn away from traditional harmony and created the atonal style that is still known to scare some audiences.

"It is interesting to hear how Schoenberg was writing before he changed his musical language in such an extraordinary way," Judd says. "This is an exploding, romantic and intellectual work. The poem that inspired it is really over the top to our thinking today, and the music will make quite a melodramatic contrast to Bach and Mozart. It will be bloody good fun conducting it."

Judd, who often makes pre-performance remarks at concerts, won't do so on this occasion. "Mario is so much more brilliant at it," the conductor says. "It will be fascinating for me to see what such a great mind comes up with."

Livio has focused on Transfigured Night for the visual portion of the concert. "I listened to it a hundred times," he says. "It is pure magic. It is full of symmetries, but they are not as transparent as the symmetries in Bach or Mozart. They are within layers and substructures. Then it hit me -- fractals, which are structures within structures within structures."

Fractals -- complex, irregular geometric shapes -- occur in mathematics and nature. "They don't tell any stories, but, in a way, they reflect the array of emotions in the Schoenberg piece," Livio says, "from despair to hope."

About 40 images will be shown during the BSO's performance of the score, preceded by Livio's commentary. "If people feel it has enriched their experience in a way they couldn't have gotten from just a concert or a program note," he says, "then I think this program will have achieved its goal."

The BSO performs at 8 tonight at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $25 to $80. Call 410-783-8000 or go to baltimore

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