Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra presents Promethean Exploits: Three different musical takes on a mind-bending myth
By Joe Aiello
In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a god who angered other gods by giving fire to man. As punishment, they chained him to a rock and put a huge bird on his shoulder. The bird gnawed at his internal organs every day, and every day throughout eternity he would awake to find his organs renewed -and that damned bird sitting on his shoulder to start his agony and torment anew.
On Friday, November 18 and Saturday, November 19 at 8 pm in the Schuster Center, the DPO will present Promethean Exploits, the third concert in the 2011-2012 Miami Valley and Good Samaritan Hospitals Classical Series. DPO Music Director Neal Gittleman has put together a program that features the unique perspectives of three different composers on the legend of Prometheus.
The first is Ludwig von Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture in which three increasingly louder and higher opening full notes with silent pauses between are almost the only hint to listeners that this piece is about something as sturm-und-drangish as the Prometheus legend. The five-minute overture is Baroque-ish, swift, very regal sounding, lively, quasi-dancelike, and lyrical. In a word: upbeat. Which makes one wonder if Beethoven perhaps had Prometheus confused with Pygmalion, the inspiration for G.B. Shaw’s play of the same name and the musical My Fair Lady.
Actually, the Prometheus Overture is but the lull before the storm.
The second unique perspective on the Prometheus legend comes from composer William Bolcom, a longtime professor of composition at the University of Michigan.
Bolcom sees you, me and our ancestors as Prometheus, because we have all been involved in or with the growth of technology as its creators, users, or advocates. To Bolcom, technology is to the modern-day what fire was to the ancient Greeks – more of a bane than a blessing. He has fashioned a thirty-minute work that invokes the admonition of the English poet George Gordon Lord Byron, a child of the Industrial Revolution, in whose poem Prometheus are the words “Man is in part divine, A troubled stream from a pure source”
Guest pianist Jeffrey Biegel is Prometheus, unleashing violent assaults on a dour, harsh brass fanfare and score. The 120-plus members of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra Chorus, selected from singers from all over the Miami Valley and led by DPO Chorus Director Hank Dahlman, intone the text of Byron’s poem.
Complexity is the word that best describes Bolcom’s music. But the picture it paints isn’t all disheartening. At the end, Bolcom leaves us with hope in nature and our own spirit to overcome.
Franz Liszt’s tone poem Prometheus follows. As with Bolcom’s work, it is somber, severe, ominous, tense, introspective, and yet strangely hopeful.
It is here where Neal Gittleman’s programming prowess really shines, because Beethoven’s Symphony Number Eight ends the concert.
The four movements of the Beethoven Eight remove us from the ponderously introspective world of Prometheus and drop us right in the lap of essentially lyrical joy that encompasses the entire scope of human emotion. The music here is classical, distorted, bombastic, mysterious, sinister, metronomic, courtly, complex, subtle, and profoundly humorous.
But I can’t stop thinking about Bolcom’s Prometheus.
Several friends and colleagues with whom I spoke thought that, given Bolcom’s perception of the inherent evil of technology and their massive impact on it, perhaps Steve Jobs or Bill Gates might be better candidates for a modern-day Prometheus than merely you or me.
Then, I watched the World Series.
Watching the people in the stands behind home plate, I was appalled to see so many, who had paid exorbitant sums to watch the games in person, doing anything but. They had their heads down, rapt with the process of reading and responding to text messages on their smart phones. That’s when it hit me. Bolcom is right: we, you and I, are Prometheus today. Chained not to a rock, but to our smart phones, iPods, iPads, eBook readers, laptops, and ultimately the Internet.
And that bird that daily gnaws at our guts and reduces our humanity in the process is technology.
In our rush to be at the forefront of this new and exciting era in communications, we have failed to see the forests for the trees. We use communication devices, but we do not communicate. The media has become the message. We tend to use smart phones to do everything but make phone calls. We passively put pictures on an electronic wall and messages about where we are and what we have been doing. When we do talk (read: text), we speak in pimply hyperbolae and employ acronyms (e.g., OMG) rather than real words.
Habit? Sure. Slavery? Perhaps, just perhaps….
Here’s a definition of real communication. Four men who lived in different countries and different eras wrote messages to us, one with words, and three with musical notes. We go to a place where, for the time we are there, no cell phones or other electronic devices are allowed. And reading those words and notes written on paper, upwards of 200 musicians and vocalists communicate the messages those four men bequeathed to us. In little more than one hour and twenty minutes, we – uninterrupted by the cares of our modern world – listen to these men speak to us, communicate with us, on the most basic, visceral, emotional level possible.
And feel the chains that bind us to whatever personal rock we occupy loosen and fall away.
Promethean Exploits will be presented on Friday, November 18 and Saturday, November 19 at 8 pm in the Schuster Center. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.daytonphilharmonic.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Joe Aiello at JoeAiello@DaytonCityPaper.com.