At one point near the end of a concert Friday night by the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall, audience members — a thousand or more of them — held their cellphones, not to take pictures or selfies but to project sound into the hall, using pre-downloaded apps. A kind of shimmering, ambient music merged with what the orchestra was playing and what chorus members, standing in the aisles, were singing, giving the hall the aura of a giant stereo system.
The piece was inspired by the famous “deep field” photograph taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, which revealed thousands of never-before-seen galaxies and, it was thought at the time, offering clues to the evolution of the universe. Since each phone held the image of one of the galaxies found in the photograph, the experience could be taken as a duplication of the photograph. Orchestra Hall, for one brief, shining moment, became the universe.
This was the work of the popular American conductor and composer Eric Whitacre. Whitacre’s style might be called maximal minimalism. His chords, whether for voices or instruments, have a special density and richness. His most compelling writing for orchestra, heard Friday night in “Deep Field” and the program opener “Lux Aurumque,” presented here in a new version for orchestra, displays a gradual shifting — chords slowly expanding and building to a climax, then fading away. His writing for brass, played so sonorously Friday night, has a grandeur that is both solemn and sensual. The activation of the cellphones near the end of “Deep Field,” as Whitacre turned at the podium to give the cue, was a magical and strangely moving moment.
“Deep Field,” though beautifully written, is a work in progress. It will be repeated this summer at the Proms in London. Keeping its elements in balance is tricky. The cellphone sounds Friday, for instance, needed to be louder.
In an especially intriguing and rewarding concert, two stalwarts from the orchestra, trumpeter Manny Laureano and English horn player Marni J. Hougham gave bright-sounding but delicate readings of the solo parts in Copland’s “Quiet City.” In a lighter vein, the excellent Minnesota Chorale easily captured the raucous spirit of Whitacre’s clever “Godzilla Eats Las Vegas,” and the orchestra did the same with Jonathan Newman’s wild taxi ride titled “Blow It Up, Start Again.” One of the evening’s highlights came just before intermission: Steven Bryant’s imaginative and brilliantly scored “Ecstatic Waters.”
Just after intermission, Whitacre paid tribute to Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus, who died last October. He named Paulus as a mentor, after which the chorale sang Paulus’ evergreen “Pilgrims’ Hymn,” a setting of a text by Michael Dennis Browne.
At intermission, an audience member said, “This is what all concerts here should be: interesting new music.”
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis writer.