Eric Whitacre: Superstar composer and space nerd

In the spring of 1990, I stood in awe in an open field at Kennedy Space Center as the shuttle Discovery slowly roared from its launch pad and slipped into orbit, a contrail of white smoke drifting over Cocoa Beach. This was a historic moment: Discovery carried in its cargo bay the most complex and expensive contraption ever placed above the planet – the Hubble Space Telescope – an instrument that would refocus our view of the universe.

Today, nearly 30 years later, Hubble continues to inspire, and not just scientists – but artists, writers and musicians. Eric Whitacre is one of them. The Grammy-winning composer is a certified space nerd and delighted in creating a score to accompany a visual mosaic of Hubble images from far, far away.

The result is Deep Field, the featured work on The Florida Orchestra’s masterworks program next weekend. But it’s more than just music. As Whitacre leads the orchestra and The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, projected above the stage will be the film Deep Field: The Impossible Magnitude of our Universe. The unique collaboration involved Whitacre, two production companies, and NASA’s Space Telescope Institute. (Watch the film here)

Whitacre based his music around what is known as the Hubble Deep Field, a montage of nearly 350 separate exposures taken over 10 days in 1995. It reveals more than 3,000 galaxies never before seen, each made up of hundreds of billions of stars, all traveling away from one another in unified expansion. Whitacre saw immediate potential for a musical score.

“I thought about the images for months, and that was a beautiful place to be,’’ he said by telephone. “I spent much of my career writing choral music, but not as much for orchestra, so with Deep Field I tried things I’d never tried before. I was already a space nut, and this gave me access to all these physicists and astronauts, so I got to meet some of my heroes.’’

Whitacre and the film take us on a cosmic ride through the Milky Way, past supernovas and nebula, a spiral galaxy, and a distant realm as seen through the window of the constellation Ursa Major. Suddenly, the Hubble telescope comes into view and the chorus sings wordless text against hushed orchestral textures. Then, Earth appears, dotted with human faces, and soon the planet recedes into the void.

“It starts with our local solar system, our moon and the planets,’’ Whitacre said, “and takes us to the edges of our known universe some 13 billion light years away.’’

Whitacre also will conduct two other original works: Lux Aurumque (Light and Gold), commissioned in 2000 by the Master Chorale of Tampa, and a piece of perpetual motion called Equus. He fleshes out the program with Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and Aaron Copland’s Quiet City.

Whitacre is an anomaly among composers, a creator of ethereal choral works whose YouTube following ranks with rock stars. Conductor, motivational speaker, and curator of virtual musical projects, the 49-year-old is among the most vocal artists working today, a half-Medieval, half-modern maestro in demand across the United States and Europe for his simple but indelible constructs.

He was relatively unknown a decade ago when he launched his Virtual Choir, an online, user-generated chorus that sparked a global phenomenon. Singers from around the world uploaded videos of a vocal line Whitacre provided, which he synchronized into a digital mosaic with sound and visuals. The Virtual Choir project has grown from 185 singers to more than 8,000 today, with an estimated 60 million online views.

“There’s something about his music that grabs the attention of people everywhere,’’ said Brett Karlin, artistic director of the Master Chorale. “He’s responsible for getting many people involved, invested and passionate about choral music … so I’m curious to see the vibe in the room for this concert.’’

To learn more about this concert, click here for program notes

Deep Field: A Cosmic Experience
Eric Whitacre, conductor
The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay
Whitacre: Lux Aurumque
Whitacre: Equus
Bernstein: Chichester Psalms
Copland: Quiet City
Whitacre: Deep Field (with Hubble video)

Click on venue for tickets
Fri, Nov 8, 8 pm, Straz Center, Ferguson
Sat, Nov 9, 8 pm, Mahaffey Theater
Sun, Nov 10, 7:30 pm, Ruth Eckerd Hall

Join the Pre-concert Conversation 1 hour prior
Free tickets for kids & teens in advance

Eric Whitacre Choral Workshop on Nov. 9. Click here for details

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