On Friday night, a cellist warmed up before a packed audience in Kresge Auditorium on the MIT campus. Normally, this wouldn’t be much to write home about. But the man was blindfolded, a tan cloth with two little black dots for eyes, and he leaned back low into his chair ached along with the sad notes he played. He was paying tribute to an English-American “Lazarus,” the late David Bowie, a man who will live again and forever because of his contributions to our music.
Along with 50 other volunteer musicians, organized by MIT professor and acting conductor Evan Ziporyn, they formed an “Ambient Orchestra,” and gathered to perform, for the benefit of the MIT Cancer Research fund, two Philip Glass symphonies that had been inspired by the first two parts of Bowie and Brian Eno’s “Berlin Trilogy,” Low and “Heroes”. Others on the stage sported their own costumed tributes to Bowie, most obviously a pair of musicians who had the Aladdin Sane lightning bolt running down the opposite sides of their faces. The best tribute, however, came from the first chair violin, who was dressed in black like everyone else, except for her ruby-red heels that stuck out when the spotlights hit them. She’d put them on to play the blues.
And blue it was to begin with. Glass’s Symphony No. 1, for Low, came first, darkly setting the mood for the first 45 minutes. It was perhaps the most expertly performed out of the two, and it seemed that much of the audience benefitted from the intense focus of the Ambient Orchestra. Perhaps the orchestra performed so expertly because it was intended to be performed in a traditional symphony environment. The percussion was heavier, the crescendos more overwhelming, the contrasts between the movements and the songs that they took their inspiration from more pronounced, made it seem that the presence of Glass as “composer” was heightened, occasionally overwhelming the Bowie/Eno influence. As the third movement, a take on “Warszawa” that expanded from the brutalist beginnings into something truly beautiful, drew to a close and the intermission began, a good fourth of the audience left, including the two people who sat directly next to me. I had the distinct feeling that people were expecting traditional versions of Bowie’s songs, instead of the Glass/Bowie hybrid that they were presented with.
When the intermission ended and the Orchestra returned, “Heroes”, or Symphony #4, started, with the first movement’s flying violins and soaring flutes echoing Robert Fripp’s iconic distorted guitar. This particular symphony was composed for ballet, and the differences were stark. Glass had a surprisingly interesting way of translating the “Heroes” b-side into something compelling for interpretive dance, and I wished that it was performed in that setting more often. He’s able to take a track like “Sense of Doubt”, which I’ve always found as the moment when I realize that flipping the record was a bad idea and head back to the comforts of “Beauty and the Beast”, and transform it into something incredible, full of the emotion that the original seemed to lack. On the other hand, there seemed to be less of a laser-focus on the music, a lack of precision that I couldn’t decide if it were Glass’ fault or the orchestra’s, but the overwhelming effort put into the performance and its resultant beauty squashed any minor quibbles I had.
After the performance ended, the audience gave Ziporyn and the assembled musicians a five-minute standing ovation, well-deserved for the amount of effort that had been put into such a loving tribute. After exiting the stage and returning to the podium, Ziporyn led the Ambient Orchestra in a rousing, Bourbon Street funeral-style traditional cover of “Let’s Dance,” and at that exact moment, I felt horrible for everybody who left. This had to have been worth the price of admission alone. The orchestra seemed like they’d loosened their ties and collars and was really having a great time with it, especially whenever they’d sing the “Ah” parts that are littered throughout the song. It was a truly special moment, and the perfect, joyous end to what could have been a dirge of a night. We danced ourselves whole again.