July 2, 2008

Dallas Symphony Dives into New World With ‘Blue Planet Live’

By Michael Granberry, The Dallas Morning News

Jul. 2--Singer-songwriter Steven Fromholz once said, "If you're writing a song about a train, it ought to sound like a train." He has nothing to do with The Blue Planet Live, but its creators know exactly what he means. Rarely has music matched the material as well as this.

The Blue Planet Live rolled into the Meyerson Symphony Center for the first of three shows Tuesday night and delivered big in offering one of the coolest, most creative escapes yet to the summer doldrums. Under the baton of composer-conductor George Fenton, it makes deft use of the 76-piece Dallas Symphony Orchestra in carrying 2,000 viewers on an oceanic expedition.

It does so with a mesmerizing score that swings from calming to exhilarating to terrifying, only, in the end, to return home again. Mr. Fenton composed the music and flew in from London to conduct the DSO, which makes splendid use of horns, strings, percussion and a trumpet soloist to enhance the emotional current.

"If you're looking at a pride of killer whales about to attack a mother and its calf, you try to imagine the sounds of that," says Mr. Fenton, whose list of musical credits for movies and television shows is stunningly long. "It's rather like a U-boat and simple in that way. Simple is quite good sometimes. It makes it clear, and I think it's quite emotional for an audience."

Be advised, however, about taking children to The Blue Planet Live , whose harsh depiction of nature's realities may upset its youngest viewers. Whale calves being bloodied and devoured and sea lion pups being toyed with sadistically by whales are among the more graphic depictions. Even so, the DSO has sold out all three shows except for standby tickets.

Like the British television audience that reveled in the series on the BBC, those lucky enough to catch the "live" version know that stories of the ocean, told as cleverly and compellingly as this, carry with them a special resonance.

It took 7,000 hours of footage, five years and 200 locations to create, and its quiet power is with you from the opening notes, when a solitary blue whale glides through dark water. Mr. Fenton's music elevates what the audience sees, with strings providing the calm, followed by a hint of percussion.

Oceans cover three-quarters of the Earth's surface, narrator Mark Walters tells us, and soon, the audience feels as though it's floating in a world of swirling silverfish and spinning dolphins, with guitars and flutes serenading the action on the screen. Spanning almost the width of the stage, the screen hangs above and behind the orchestra and carries high-definition images (the maximum 1,080 pixels) projected from the other end of the Meyerson.

"In many ways, it's similar to any film and in certain ways completely different," says Mr. Fenton, who has composed the music for movies as diverse as Dangerous Liaisons and Groundhog Day. "There's no dialogue, no actors. And it's a world that nobody has any real sense of. Even if you dive, you don't see what you see in The Blue Planet ."

Amy Wagliardo, director of operations for the DSO, is thrilled about the show selling out all three nights.

"We want to showcase our music and what we do," she says. "This is very close to what we do, with, of course, projected images added. Our hope, always, is to enlarge our audience, to have them come back and hear something else, whether it's a pops series or a classical series. We're always striving to bring more people in the door and show them what we do."

Before Tuesday night's opening performance, Mr. Fenton expressed excitement about playing with the DSO and confessed to having an almost-boyish euphoria about conducting in the Meyerson. He sounded a bit worried, however, about the Texas heat.

The heat alone is a perfect reason to catch The Blue Planet Live, which is calming, invigorating and informative, and at the same time, refreshingly escapist.


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