Mark Gresham | 19 FEB 2021
Astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) is best remembered today for the three laws of planetary motion named after him.
- every planet’s orbit is an ellipse with the Sun at a focus;
- a line joining the Sun and a planet sweeps out equal areas in equal times; and
- the square of a planet’s orbital period is proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit.
Kepler rejected empiricism and the cynical viewpoint that astronomical hypotheses are merely mathematical fictions. In his seminal book, Harmonices Mundi (The Harmony of the World), published in 1619, Kepler used his rational mental capacities in the disciplines of mathematics, geometry and even music to determine the true physical causes and processes behind the motions of the planets from physical causes, combined with his vision of an ordered world as a manifestation of divine harmony.
Although the concepts of a heliocentric model of the solar system go back to pre-Aristotelian times, Kepler proved that hypothesis correct by providing the needed data. He simultaneously asserted that the orbits of the planets around the sun are arranged in the manner of a musical scale. Kepler sought out common cause between music and astrophysics — a deeper meaning of “harmony” beyond audible music.
In a similar musically metaphorical vein, Missy Mazzolli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) is, in the words of the composer’s program notes,“music in the shape of a solar system.” This is the contemporary work with which guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann opened this week’s virtual concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on Thursday. The video stream will remain accessible to ticket holders in demand through March 17.
Although not easily discernible on first, second, or third listening (and I re-played that part of the the concert video five times, still not fully convinced) it may well be a mobile of twisting :loops within a larger orbit.” But the more times given a listen, the less the search for evidence of the composer’s description matter; each time the experience seems to go by faster and more smoothly, and it becomes more enjoyable as an atmospheric study – even if not particularly unique in an era rife with such things.
The most Keplerian description in the notes is that this is music “that inches close to the listener only to leap away at breakneck speed” – somewhat analogous to the velocities of planetary bodies that orbit a larger gravitational partner (the Sun) in an elliptical orbit – most pronounced in regularly returning comets whose looping paths are exceptionally elongated. The orbits of the planets on the Solar System are nearly circular, so their individual orbital velocities don’t vary much. (See Kepler’s Second Law.)
Stutzmann last conducted the ASO in a concert of Beethoven and Wagner streamed just a few months ago, in early December,.This time, in addition to the Mazzolli piece, she took on some very familiar works by Mozart and Brahms for the balance of the program.
Up next was Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216, featuring ASO concertmaster David Coucheron as soloist. It was composed in Salzburg in 1775 when Mozart was 19 years old.
What the audience heard was a cheerful, stylistically appealing performance. Coucheron;s cadenza material for the first movement sounded fresh, as if sprung forth in the moment of inspiration? The thoughtfully lyrical second movement was followed by a lively third movement, with its folk-like middle section, for a happy ending that needed no bombast – just fun and enjoyable.
For the final work on the program we got another old favorite, the Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73, of Johannes Brahms, apiece which Stutzmann had expressed specific interest in conducting in Atlanta with the ASO. We got a warm, mostly unhurried rendering that gave attention to the symphony’s vocal-like elements but rose to boldness when called for. Although all four movements were played credibly, in this instance I personally found the third movement especially likable. ■