Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Overture, op. 36
Respighi: Church Windows
Debussy: Sunken Cathedral
Sung: The Circle Closes
This, the last of our subscription concerts for the season, promised to be a great one. I love the Russian Easter Overture, and the Orlando Phil did a nice job with its glorious, solemn, joyful, and triumphant Resurrection Day music. The next two works were new to me, but I like Respighi a lot, and Debussy well enough, and they did not disappoint. This concert was a bit different, having extra lights that projecting a lotus blossom-like image of changing colors behind the orchestra during this, the first half of the performance. It was hardly necessary, but was simple enough not to detract from the music, and may even have enhanced it a little.
The second half of the show was another story. This is where I was truly disappointed, because for it my expectations had been highest. I'd loved every Stella Sung composition I'd heard, beginning with the suite she wrote for the Florida Symphony Youth Orchestra back in the 1990's. As I said before, I've never yet met a Stella Sung work I didn't like.
Until now. I hadn't anticipated having to struggle with my New Year's Resolution #4 - Like More Things. The Circle Closes began well enough; I even managed to appreciate parts of the light show, though I found it a bit over the top. There was enough dry ice to make one think the auditorium was on fire, and the musicians' feet—not to mention their instruments—must have been uncomfortably cold. I will say I was impressed with the harp, however. It was positioned in the light just right to make it look as if it had been carved out of tiger's eye, and the pins glowed with color that changed with the lights.
The music was, broadly, in two parts without a break. Sung has stated that the work has no "program," but rather is purely abstract. Nonetheless, I would have called the first part angry and aggressive, and the look of Carl the Timpanist rising up out of the cold fog gave the impression of some Nordic version of hell. The second part was more serene and meditative, or so it seemed at first.
Porter described The Circle Closes as "one part Horizons [a ride at Disney World's EPCOT park], one part Blue Man Group, and one part 2001: A Space Odyssey. I, too, felt the EPCOT influence right away, and indeed the first half could make a good soundtrack to some wild theme park ride. The movie that came to my mind, however, was Disney's Fantasia—the first one, in which A Night on Bald Mountain, with its angry devils and spouting flames, gives way to the Schubert Ave Maria and the monks' candlelit processional. Only in this case it is as if the devils suddenly break into the procession and shatter the serenity forever. I haven't quite yet forgiven Carl for what his tympani blast did to my heart in the middle of the meditation.
After that it was all downhill. The second half of the work features four "crystal bowls." This, too, I was looking forward to, because I've heard music using crystal goblets, and they make a lovely, ringing sound. But this was something else. According to the program, crystal bowls are sometimes used "for meditation and healing." I agree with Porter that they could better be used for interrogation. After two hours of that sound, he declared, he'd spill any state secret you want. It took considerably less than two hours to have me cringing in my seat and eager for the concert to end. The tone of the bowls was not, at first, unpleasant, but repeated endlessly, with no break, no discernable variation, just over and over and over and over, and at an increasingly loud volume, it was torture. It took most of the ride home before my ears stopped ringing, and longer than that before my mind stopped ringing.
This was a first for me. I've never not applauded at the end of a concert. But I was that miserable. I'm glad I showed my enthusiasm vigorously at the end of the first half, because I know the musicians did a good job. And I'm not giving up on Stella Sung; no one can bat 1000 with anyone else's taste, and to be honest, most of the audience seemed to like The Circle Closes. But not me, New Year's resolution notwithstanding.
But don't take my word for it. The concert was streamed live online, and you can hear it yourself: Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, Color Cathedral. You must register, but registration is free. At the moment at least, it's not in a finished form—there are several versions, and the first one I watched ended in the middle of the piece. And you may not get the same impression we did. We were amazed to hear how much different it sounds in the recording. The bowls are much softer and not nearly so oppressive, so it's possible that our negative experience was due to the acoustic peculiarities of our middle-front balcony position, though that's normally a very good spot.