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Eric Whitacre takes TFO, Chorale into Hubble’s ‘Deep Field’

Bill DeYoung



Eric Whitacre conducts three concerts with the Florida Orchestra and the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay this weekend. Photo: TFO.

In a Straz Center dressing room, Eric Whitacre is talking about his choral work Lux Aurumque, commissioned by the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay in 2000, and first performed here.

The Nevada native has since become something of a rock star among composers and conductors, not just because of his boyish good looks and boundless enthusiasm, but because he is an innovator – moving classical music forward, into the future, is one of his primary goals.

Nine years after its world premiere in Tampa, Whitacre dreamed up the idea of a “virtual” choir to sing Lux Aurumque, going online and asking for singers – anyone, from anywhere – to audition via video.

Those chosen for the project were assigned sections and directed to video themselves singing the piece. To set the atmosphere and tempo, he sent everyone a silent video of himself conducting.

“All I thought, genuinely, was ‘I think this will work as an experiment,’” Whitacre recalls. “That’s all I wrote on my blog – ‘Guys, let’s try this!’ I didn’t know if it would work at all, and I definitely didn’t think anybody outside my little group of choir-geek friends would be interested. I didn’t think it was this groundbreaking idea at all.”

The brilliantly edited video features 185 singers. To date, it’s had more than 15 million views on YouTube.

When Whitacre first saw the finished product, “I got tears in my eyes. And the other thing that I was stunned by is that it sounds musical. It’s such a small thing, but if I conducted a little slower in one place, or asked for a little more sound, each individual did that thing on their video. And then when it adds up, it actually works, musically.

“And when we put it out, and it went viral, that’s when I was kind of stunned. And I found out that it means something different to people who aren’t musicians. They see the poetry in the humanity. That’s when I knew I’d stumbled onto something here that I didn’t mean to.”

To date, he has produced five Virtual Chorus videos, each more complex than the last.

The music is creamy, and dreamy, and the spectral blend of voices – people who’ll never even be in the same room with each other – is otherworldly. “One of things I learned well was that by doing slow, liquid-y pieces, you’ve got a much better chance because the entrances can be soft, the endings can be soft …” Whitacre explains. “Something really rhythmic and challenging would be much more difficult.”

The Master Chorale will perform Lux Aurumque with the Florida Orchestra, conducted by Whitacre, at this weekend’s Masterworks concerts (Friday at the Straz, Saturday at the Mahaffey Theater and Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall).

The program, which also includes Leonard Bernstein’s ambitious Chichester Psalms, is centered around another Whitacre composition, Deep Field.

Backstage at the Straz Center Wednesday (Nov. 6) with his wife, opera singer Laurence Servaes. “I find the human voice is loaded with dense emotional information,” Whitacre says. “Ella Fitzgerald can sing just a single sentence, and you’re hearing a lot more than the music or the words. There’s something so rich about the human voice.” Photo Bill DeYoung

A moody meditation on the universe, and man’s place in it, Deep Field (the name is a reference to the Hubble Space Telescope’s crystalline images of the constellation Ursa Major) was co-commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra and England’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

“There happened to be a guy who was a fan of my choral music, who worked for NASA, in the audience at the premiere in Minnesota,” Whitacre reveals. “I’m a space nerd from way back. I met the guy, and he said ‘If you ever want to visit Cape Canaveral, just let me know.’ And I said, ‘It’s been a childhood dream. I’ll be there in three weeks.’”

And somehow, some way, that visit sparked a collaboration with NASA – the film Deep Field: The Impossible Magnitude of Our Universe, 25 minutes of breathtaking, high-resolution Hubble images of deep space and big blue ball on which we spin. Accompanied by Eric Whitacre’s orchestra and choral music.

This weekend, Whitacre and TFO will play the score along with the images. The vocalists will emerge, 12 minutes into the piece, to sing in the aisles, from one end of the theater to the other. As vast and as cosmic, in a way, as the universe itself.

Whitacre has a plan to make the event resonate even more deeply. There’s a Deep Field app, which audience members will be instructed to download, if they wish, before the performance.

At a certain, pre-arranged moment during Deep Field, Whitacre will wordlessly direct the audience to press – in tandem – their app buttons.

“You get a fly-through of deep space on your video screen, and then this little electronic sound is coming out of the phone,” he says gleefully. “It’s nothing by itself, but if you have 2,000 phones all making the sound, it just glistens inside the theater.”

Tickets and info here.

In rehearsal at the Straz Center. “I know a couple of choir conductors who are also composers, but I don’t know of any of them who also write for orchestra,” Whitacre says. “Who want to do that thing as well. So I guess maybe I’m somewhat unique in that.” Photo: Bill DeYoung













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