You don’t usually hear the New York Philharmonic play so much Gyorgy Ligeti, the 20th century experimental Hungarian composer whose eerie music sets the mood of so many Stanley Kubrick movies. But Saturday night, the Phil performed the score to 2001: A Space Odyssey live, projected onto a screen above the orchestra, which meant a lot of it. And, sure, it was downright glorious to hear the thundering chords of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra over the opening credits (so much so that the audience spontaneously applauded), or the sweeping majesty of Johann Strauss’s On the Beautiful Blue Danube waltz over the ironic dance of outer-space machinery. But it was the Ligeti that was truly revelatory: conductor and music director Alan Gilbert’s steady control over the buzzing textures of unsettling discordant orchestral passages accompanied by a startlingly dissonant chorus revealed not just how strange that music is—it’s perfectly 20th century, the sounds of a nightmarish post-Holocaust world—but also how tricky, how demanding of technical precision. The orchestra was up for its challenge.
The movie itself displays similar technical precision, though watching it again, I was struck by how mixed my feelings were. Of course it’s a technical marvel, its set designs and special effects—plus its marriage of image and music—truly astonishing. But its plodding, spacey story left me frustrated and exhausted; Starchild, WTF? (These feelings may have been exacerbated by the fever I had.) Not that I resorted to the Film Forumesque scoffing that the audience directed at every radically 60s set, imperfect effect, and also at bizarrely inappropriate moments: how is it funny early on when, post-monolith, the apes beat a rival ape to death with boar bones? It wasn’t a typical crowd for the Philharmonic, younger and scruffier than the tuxedo’d set; one person sitting behind me said to his companion that he hardly recognized anybody. Which, good! But then there were people like the fellow who made a dramatic hand gesture in the air during a dramatic musical moment—aw! Like you’re the conductor!—and the two sitting nearby who apparently like to whisper everything they know about movies (not much!) while they watch one. Orchestras around the country are looking to attract new and younger audiences. But god help us if it’s just a bunch of talkers, gum chewers and wheezy breathers.
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