It’s hard to believe that just a year ago, all of Baltimore waited with anticipation for the exciting inauguration of the festival called Light City. We wondered: What would this “light art” look like? Would the weather cooperate? Would the tourists show up? No one knew for sure, but everyone could feel the energy crackling.
For my part, I was preparing to conduct the world premiere of Light Cathedral (written especially for Light City) with my chamber orchestra Symphony Number One. The festival turned out to be a huge success, and now the second year of the festival is generating serious buzz.
To get you in the mood, we’ve put together a Light City playlist, featuring first-rate acts performing at this year’s edition, other great Baltimore musicians, as well as some terrific, light-themed tracks. I’ve organized the tracks into light-themed categories, and I lay out my thinking below. You can use the list multiple ways: feel free to listen straight through, to stick the tracks that appeal to you, or put this baby on shuffle to trip the light fantastic.
“Lux” is the Latin word for light, and–just like today–the illustration of light with music was popular for songs written in the Renaissance. Included is a great Tudor anthem by Thomas Tallis, O Nata Lux, along with two contemporary examples by Morten Lauridsen and Eric Whitacre. Considering how well they fit together, it’s hard to believe that these pieces were written nearly 500 years apart. If you like Straight No Chaser and Pentatonix, you’ll love these vocal groups, with dense harmonies that create luxurious soundscapes. It’s almost like bathing in sound.
Music is a natural place to evoke the refraction of light into the colors of the rainbow. Light City performer and gifted local composer George F. Spicka performs inventive piano improvisations like Blue Aeons and Yellow Thoughts, while Baltimore legend Chick Webb leads his jazz band in the lustrous Azure. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra rounds out this set, with Purple by Michael Torke, conducted by former music director David Zinman. Elsewhere on the list, you’ll find our own masterful maestra, Marin Alsop, conducting the BSO in Bernstein’s sacred yet profane Mass (“God said ‘let there be light,’ . . . and it was goddamn good!”). You’ll also catch her conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in The Light, by native son Phillip Glass.
Sprinkled throughout the playlist are radiant tracks, like “Give the World Light,” a gospel-infused number featuring Light City performer Ama Chandra. Besides Ama’s honest and attractive expression, the synthesizer choices really heighten the appeal. Pro-tip: listening with headphones reveals some clever channel-swapping effects that increase the energy of this great tune—terrific work on the part of the producers. Speaking of great synthesizers, Parliament, Portugal. The Man, Ellie Goulding, KSTONE4U, and Faame Emanuel bring the party throughout.
For a little romance, connect with “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” here performed by the Inkspots, along with Ella Fitzgerald’s smooth soubrette. Movie buffs will recognize that it’s the same version heard in Manchester by the Sea. For a trip to true frenzy, try classical music’s rising rockstar, Barbara Hannigan. Her kaleidoscopic performance of Hans Abrahamsen’s “Let Me Tell You” is the epitome of musical storytelling, with brash angles and sinewy curves setting off this powerful text drawn from Shakespeare’s Ophelia in Hamlet. The list wouldn’t be complete without LC 2017 headliner Biz Markie’s popular “Just a Friend.”
Could you imagine a Baltimore without Nina Simone? Neither could we. Sit back and enjoy a scintillating remaster of “Here Comes the Sun,” followed by the boistorous bass of Rye Rye’s “Sunshine” remix. Try not to get style whiplash: Next up is Max Richter’s mournful “On the Nature of Daylight” from the motion picture Disconnect, starring Jason Bateman.
Doubtless, the most alluring colors of the day fill the sky as the sun sets. Baltimore composer, Peabody faculty member, and music community leader David Smooke lights the evening sky with the iridescent “Dusk,” from his Transgenic Fields for piano. “Dusk” appears on his not-to-be-missed new album, Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, which features a number of other Charm City artists performing Smooke’s exceptional and essential creations. For something completely different, dusk turns to night in The Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s performance of the classic, “Night Train.” This unconventional acoustic jazz/funk band creates unmistakable and effective train imagery with the snare drum and brass waves in the intro.
For those who love to mix their music with pop culture, the classic tune will bring to mind the background music of the “Under the Sea Dance” in Back to the Future. Sticking with jazz, and in homage to our hometown paper, this set rounds out with Ella Fitzgerald singing “Midnight Sun.”
Discovering new local music is one of the best parts of Light City and one of the most exciting parts of compiling this list. Prog rock ensemble Papadosio was one of the highlights. Check out their 11-minute jam, “Weekend at Bernie Sanders”—the title alone says it all. To follow it up, we go back in time to the soulful and songful “Moonlight in Vermont.” (Bernie would approve.) Oh, and check out the singer: that’s none other than Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy and the voice of Peter, Stewie, and Brian. Can you believe the way he croons? To cap off this final section is Debussy’s Clair de Lune, French for “moonlight,” and the perfect conclusion to the soundtrack for your stroll down this year’s Light Walk. We’ll see you there.