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MIT honors David Bowie with orchestral tribute

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A volunteer orchestra of area freelancers played at Friday’s tribute.
A volunteer orchestra of area freelancers played at Friday’s tribute.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

CAMBRIDGE — Aladdin Sane was the favored David Bowie persona among those in costume for MIT's tribute to the late star on Friday, with multiple lightning-bolt-painted faces among audience and players. Or was it only the most obvious? Other outfits might have been oblique Bowie tributes, or might just have been unusually fashionable. At a certain point, influence becomes so profound that it hides in plain sight.

The concert — organized and conducted by composer, clarinetist, and MIT professor Evan Ziporyn, featuring a volunteer orchestra of area freelancers, with proceeds benefiting MIT cancer research — was an excellent wake: heartfelt, celebratory, just freewheeling enough. But the repertoire, Philip Glass's first and fourth symphonies (in their Boston premieres, astonishingly), recalled that path of influence. Composed in 1992 and 1996, the symphonies draw ideas and themes from, respectively, "Low" and "Heroes," two of a famous, late-'70s trilogy of albums Bowie recorded in collaboration with Brian Eno; hearing them in succession, one sensed the progression from interesting homage to inseparable collaboration.

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The Bowie/Eno albums are revered by rock cognoscenti; in the "Low" Symphony, Glass handles the relics with a care that sometimes manifests as anxiety, the brooding source material often accelerated and amplified into insistent, even demanding grandeur. But the slow sections — in "Subterraneans," or the final movement, "Warszawa" — were achingly lovely; Glass's Bruckner-like orchestration, pulling distinct, organ-like stops, created a compelling paradox: rich austerity.

The Symphony No. 4, "Heroes," was written to be choreographed, playing to one of Glass's greatest strengths, his theatrical sense. The music is immediately more colorful, more flamboyant — but also more exegetically confident: If, with "Low," Glass gravitated toward those ideas already congruent with his methodically spiraling style, with "Heroes," the vocabularies turn symbiotically expansive. Glass finds unexpected, uncanny analogs to the title song's bright, claustrophobic ecstasy; draws out the Wagnerian undertones of "Sense of Doubt"; wryly classicizes "Sons of the Silent Age" back to its operatic roots; converts the rhythmic drive of "V-2 Schneider" to a glorious, runaway chain reaction.

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The performances, though slightly ragged in spots (understandable, given the concert's ad hoc nature), were persuasive. Ziporyn proved a superb podium advocate, fostering bold, sumptuous sounds, arranging the patterns and modules with disciplined pace and patience. For an encore, the players uncorked some fizz: Ziporyn's orchestration of "Let's Dance," groovy, shiny, Pops-worthy in the best way. It brought one last Bowie into the hall, the one who refused to discriminate between avant-garde challenge and pop pleasure. In other words: serious moonlight.

Music review

An Orchestral Tribute to David Bowie

Evan Ziporyn, conductor Glass: Symphony no. 1, "Low"; Symphony no. 4, "Heroes" Presented by MIT Music and Theater Arts in collaboration with Orange Mountain Music and Richard Guérin. At Kresge Auditorium, MIT, Friday.


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.