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PRESTINI: The Hubble Cantata

CD Button Rivera; Gunn, Livio; 1B1, NOVUS NY, Washington Chorus, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Wachner. Text. Vision Into Art Records VIA 14

Recordings Hubble Cantata Cover 1017

FOR TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS, the Hubble Telescope has beamed down to Earth some of the most beautiful images of the heavens captured by human means: iridescent, ghostlike nebulae; spiraling blue-and-white galaxies; red dwarves smoldering like embers. So why have composer Paola Prestini and librettist Royce Vavrek created such a depressing piece to commemorate it? Their Hubble Cantata—released here on the composer’s self-founded Vision into Art label, which has recorded quality works by up-and-coming composers—had its premiere last year in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park; audience members, with the aid of their smart phones and cardboard headsets, were treated to a cosmic virtual-reality show as the work was performed live. Distracted by this fancy bit of tech, it was probably hard to pick up on Vavrek’s text, which combines astronomical imagery with the confusing and unnecessarily tragic story of a man searching for his missing wife after their child dies. It’s intended to humanize a subject as mind-boggling as the universe, but this scenario isn’t touching or poignant—it’s just tear-jerking. Vavrek’s libretto drips with melodrama, which leads to equally melodramatic music from Prestini: almost every number in her angst-ridden score erupts into a big, sweeping climax for baritone Nathan Gunn and soprano Jessica Rivera, backed by the unintelligible Washington Chorus and Brooklyn Youth Chorus. The soloists, representing the nameless protagonists, try their best to provide some depth to their high-strung roles. 

Occasionally, astrophysicist Mario Livio interjects with a factoid, sounding like a bored docent giving the same planetarium show for the umpteenth time. Mostly what he describes—and what Vavrek riffs on in his poetry—are some of the hokier scientific hypotheticals that provide fodder for science-fiction flicks—parallel universes, simulated consciousness and the so-called “Great Filter,” which prevents intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations from developing past a certain point. None of these conjectures, by the way, have anything to do with the Hubble Telescope. Their inclusion seems intended more to suck in an audience with the flashier, sensationalist side of science than to give an accurate picture of astronomy.

Prestini draws on some of the more obvious musical signifiers of space and science—electronic Forbidden Planet soundscapes; a variation on the familiar Moonlight Sonata bass line played on twinkling glockenspiel and piano; endlessly ascending and descending scales paired with a counting choir, as in Einstein on the Beach. But at times she proves herself capable of originality; while her vocal lines are overly sentimental, she has a knack for instrumental writing. Just when we’ve been lulled by a pleasant postminimalist texture, she throws us off guard by tossing in little surprises—snaking, Stravinskyan woodwind lines or moaning, microtonal strings that drift upward and disintegrate into silence. There’s even at one point what sounds like a shofar, calling deep into the abyss of space. The final section features Prestini at her best, as she conjures a frightening Matrix dystopia in which the human mind is converted into artificial intelligence. A mesmerizing haze of sound builds up, layering humming choir, whistling electronics and a rumbling, Ligeti-like cluster chord in the instrumental ensemble that slowly shifts and intensifies, punctuated by radio interceptions of static and a woman’s voice. —Joe Cadagin



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