Boulder Symphony’s “Genius” concert unites Mozart and Einstein

Slightly different programs will be presented Thursday and Friday evenings

By Peter Alexander Jan. 28 at 4:10 p.m.

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Mozart

Mozart, a composer universally acknowledged to be a genius, and Albert Einstein, a scientist universally acknowledged to be a genius, will be brought together, after a fashion, on the next concert of the Boulder Symphony.

The program, appropriately titled “Genius,” will be presented twice, in slightly different forms. Devin Patrick Hughes will conduct.

Both programs honor some of the great geniuses of physics as well as music. Thursday (Jan. 30) at Boulder’s Jewish Community Center (JCC), the program will comprise Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550; Einstein’s Dream by Cindy McTee; the world premiere of And Yet it Moves, an homage to Renaissance astronomer Galileo by Clay Allen; and Fermi’s Paradox by Austin Wintory, inspired by a question the Italian nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi once asked casually over lunch.

A second performance Friday (Jan. 31) at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Boulder will substitute the first movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, played by Jessica Zhang, in place of McTee’s score. Zhang was the winner of the Single Movement Division of the Concerto Competition of the 2019 International Keyboard Odyssiad® and Festival Competition, held last summer in Ft. Collins.

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Composer Cindy McTee

A program with music celebrating the work of great scientists has long been a goal for Hughes. “I’ve been wanting to do a program for a long time that brings the arts and sciences together,” he says, “especially now in this world we live in, where sometimes science gets pushed onto the side of opinion. For hundreds of years the arts and sciences were intertwined.”

Both performances open with one of Mozart’s most well known and celebrated works, the Symphony No. 40 in G minor. It was written at a time when Mozart was in dire straits financially and having to beg loans from his close friends. “This is out of tragedy, Mozart looking inside,” Hughes says. “Of course it’s the creative genius Mozart, and every time you play a Mozart symphony, it’s operatic, you’re telling a story.”

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Albert Einstein

Mozart pairs well with McTee’s Einstein’s Dream, because Einstein was devoted to Mozart’s music. An excellent amateur violinist, he often played Mozart’s violin sonatas, and once described Mozart’s music as “part of the inner beauty of the universe.” McTee wrote Einstein’s Dream in 2005, for the World Year of Physics, also known informally as the “Einstein Year” because it was the centennial of some of Einstein’s critical work on the theory or relativity.

The piece is scored for strings and percussion who play with a computer-generated MP3 track that strictly controls the unfolding of the music. It begins with a chorale by Bach, another composer that Einstein admired for the logical construction of his works. The individual movements have titles referring to Einstein’s groundbreaking work as a physicist, including “Warps and Curves in the Fabric of Space and Time,” “Pondering the Behavior of Light” and “The Frantic Dance of Subatomic Particles.”

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Composer Clay Allen

And Yet it Moves was commissioned by the Boulder Symphony for the “Genius” program. Allen is a doctoral composition student at the University of Colorado, where he directs the Pendulum New Music concert series. Hughes suggested the idea of a piece about Galileo to Allen, who embraced the idea.

The title, And Yet it Moves, is a comment attributed to Galileo, after he was placed under house arrest and forced by Catholic authorities to recant his claim that the earth revolves around the sun. Galileo’s ideas were such a threat to the Catholic Church’s theological stance that the earth was at the center of the universe that Galileo was tried by the Inquisition. His books were banned by the church until 1718, and only in 1992 did Pope John Paul II finally admit the church had been wrong to censor Galileo’s work.

Allen’s score includes “sweeping string melodies that [portray] standing up in the face of tyranny or ignorance,” Hughes says. The composer will attend the premiere performances by the Boulder Symphony and will speak about his work at a 6:45 p.m. preconcert talk both nights.

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Enrico Fermi

Enrico Fermi was an Italian nuclear physicist who was part of the Manhattan project developing the atomic bomb during World War II. Once when chatting with fellow scientists over lunch in 1950, Fermi asked if the universe is so vast, with so many galaxies and planets that could hold life, “Where is everybody”?—meaning all the other life forms that should be out there.

This was the origin of “Fermi’s Paradox,” that the universe is vast enough and old enough that we should have made contact with another civilization, but we have not. “Out of Fermi’s Paradox comes a bunch of different solutions,” Hughes says, ranging from the difficulty of interstellar travel to the idea that they are already here in the form of UFOs.

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Composer Austin Wintory

“Wintory doesn’t exactly say this,” Hughes says, “but one of those solutions is that every time a society develops to where they can destroy themselves, they do. You can hear the doom [in the music], so it’s kind of a warning.”

The composer provided his own epigraph for Fermi’s Paradox in his program note, poetically describing the paradox that Fermi saw: “Our eyes turn to the sky and we see a nearly endless sea of stars and galaxies. . . . With eyes and ears aimed outward, it’s logical that we’d catch glimpses of life and peoples everywhere.

“But we see only overwhelming darkness. We hear total silence. Ours is an existence of oppressive loneliness.

“Reality is at once beautiful and terrifying,” he concludes; “lonely, yet of one.”

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Devin Patrick Hughes and the Boulder Symphony

“Genius”
Boulder Symphony, Devin Patrick Hughes, conductor
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan 30, Boulder Jewish Community Center

Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550
Cindy McTee: Einstein’s Dream
Clay Allen: And Yet It Moves (World Premiere)
Austin Wintory: The Fermi Paradox (Colorado Premiere)

7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 31, First Presbyterian Church, Boulder

Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550
Clay Allen: And Yet It Moves (World Premiere)
Austin Wintory: The Fermi Paradox (Colorado Premiere)
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2, First Movement, Jessica Zhang, piano

Tickets