Grant Park’s “Northern Lights” premiere proves less than the sum of its multimedia parts

Sat Aug 09, 2014 at 12:31 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Christopher Theofanidis' "The Legend of the Northern Lights" received its world premiere Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival.
Christopher Theofanidis’ “The Legend of the Northern Lights” received its world premiere Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who like visual film counterpoint to classical music events and those who find it distracting, unnecessary and, often, irrelevant.

The program for the Grant Park Music Festival’s penultimate weekend raised that conflict again Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion. The first of two commissions to be heard in the final two weeks of the lakefront festival’s season was the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’s The Legend of the Northern Lights, performed by Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra.

With a live action component and video images projected on a massive screen behind the orchestra, Northern Lights is a co-commission between the Grant Park Music Festival, the Adler Planetarium, KV 265 (a Chicago-based nonprofit for “the communication of science through art”), and the Canadian Space Agency. (Was NASA too busy or just more artistically discerning?)

You might expect some artistic confusion as a result of four organizations with possibly nonparallel agendas, and you would be right. The Legend of the Northern Lights is a high-tech multimedia mess that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be: a classical composition, a high-definition showpiece of nature and the galaxy, or a didactic educational film for schoolchildren.

The good news is that the musical side of things is the most successful element. Christopher Theofanidis is one of our most gifted composers and he has fashioned a work that manages to be engaging, substantial and smartly scored, accompanying the film’s images deftly while not being submerged by the overpowering video counterpoint. This music—which felt significantly shorter Friday than the 30-minute length stated in the program—is good enough to be retooled into a more concise concert work for orchestra sans images.

The film is by Jose Francisco Salgado, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium and (oddly enough) a cofounder of the sponsoring KV 275. Salgado’s visuals are often striking, especially the planetary and Northern Lights, though a few images appeared to be manipulated, as if the genuine pictures wouldn’t be quite astounding enough. Yet the disjunctive narrative fails to hold together. The would-be dramatic section of a nature spirit visiting a cabin at night seems to come from a ghost story wholly out of left field. And some of the outdoors scenes of the caribou and majestic moose recall CBC nature vignettes as parodied by SCTV (“The woodchuck hibernates in snowy climes.”).

The least successful element is the live introduction with a child asking his grandfather about the Northern Lights and planets. Though capably done by narrator Frank Babbitt and child actor Nicholas Black (son of concertmaster Jeremy Black), the scene feels grafted on to fulfill some educational precept by one of the commissioning agencies.

Carlos Kalmar kept the myriad elements together skillfully and the Grant Park Orchestra fulfilled the musical side solidly with fine violin solos by concertmaster Black.

For likely the first time in history, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 was heard on the first half of the program.

One would think this big hour-long, chock-full-of-tunes canvas would be prime meat for Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra, but Friday night’s performance proved surprisingly mixed.

Kalmar’s caressing of the long lines seemed to fitfully impede momentum, the melodies too lovingly drawn out in the opening movement and the long-limbed Adagio, the latter unaided by a reedy clarinet solo. Balances seemed off with the corporate sonority sounding thin and lacking heft and definition at the bass end, likely from a bad electronic mix. The long and hectic summer rehearsal schedule told as well in more technical slips than we usually hear from these players.

Still, the Scherzo was aptly vigorous with the big middle tune rich and luxuriant and the finale proved most successful with driving energy and an impassioned coda.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Grant Park’s “Northern Lights” premiere proves less than the sum of its multimedia parts”

  1. Posted Aug 10, 2014 at 8:22 am by Cynthia Weglarz

    Thank you, thank you, thank you Christopher Theofandis and Jose Francisco Salgado for this
    fabulous collaboration. We saw a preview on
    Chicago Tonight and made our way down to Millenium Park on Friday. Huge attendance!
    So many young families. Truly inspiring.
    Cheers to all the sponsors!

  2. Posted Aug 12, 2014 at 12:36 pm by Dr. Jose Francisco Salgado

    Dear Mr. Johnson,

    As the film¹s director I am delighted that you were able to join us for the Friday premiere of “The Legend of the Northern Lights”. However, I would like to clear up some inaccurate assumptions that appeared in your review.

    1. The music was a co-commission of KV 265 and Grant Park Orchestra alone. The Canadian Space Agency and the Adler Planetarium were presenting partners but not involved in the creative aspects of the production.

    2. NASA actually contributed the solar images, the Earth visualizations, and the astronaut photography. The reason why the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) was a presenting partner is because they provided valuable assistance through their AuroraMAX research program which has an observational component in the Northwest Territories of Canada and where I travelled to photograph the auroras. The CSA is among the world’s leading organizations researching the aurorae. The partnership (especially given that the story takes place in Canada!) is natural. Indeed, your reference to NASA seems gratuitous.

    3. There were never four nonparallel agendas since the entire creative process, including both music and film, fell within the KV 265 production team (which included Mr. Theofanidis and myself).

    4. I’m glad that you enjoyed the “striking” images. Especially as *none* of the images of the aurorae (from the ground or from orbit) were manipulated. The spectacular colors and the breathtaking patterns are all real. It really has to be seen to be believed.

    I am happy to read that you enjoyed Mr. Theofanidis’ music. He is indeed “one of our most gifted composers” and it was an absolute pleasure to craft this work with him.


    José Francisco Salgado, PhD
    Astronomer, Visual Artist, and Co-Founder of KV 265
    (not KV 275 which is Mozart¹s Missa brevis in B flat major)

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