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August 2014
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Want to See Northern Lights? Either the Arctic Circle or Grant Park Will Do

Grant Park Music Festival, Pritzker Pavilion, c. Christopher Neseman

Grant Park Music Festival, Pritzker Pavilion, c. Christopher Neseman

Live broadcast, Friday at 7:30 pm


Composer Christopher Theofanidis

While the Grant Park Orchestra season coincides with the dog days of summer; and composer Christopher Theofanidis hails from the desert southwest, their upcoming concert together goes to another extreme: the northern lights in the dead of winter.

The light shows of the aurora borealis have long been seen as omens or the source of fear, folklore, mysticism, and wonder. It is this spectacular nighttime phenomenon that inspired the new piece, The Legend of the Northern Lights, being premiered by the Grant Park Orchestra this week. Theofanidis will employ the spoken word as well as an enormous movie screen suspended above the orchestra, with projections of the northern lights choreographed to the music.

For the visual component, Adler Planetarium astronomer José Salgado took cameras to the top of the world, a town called Yellowknife in the Northwest Territory. To produce the visuals for this week’s concert, Dr. Salgado went into the night with temperatures plunging to minus 25-35 degrees Fahrenheit, though he and his associate both said without hesitation: the sky is so amazing, you don’t really notice the cold.

Why Yellowknife?

In a recent interview with WFMT, Dr. Salgado explained there are a number of factors that will improve one’s chances of photographing the northern lights.

1. Go north. There is a halo known as the auroral oval, which encircles the earth’s magnetic poles. Dr. Salgado positioned himself below the ring in order to shoot time-lapse photos of the lights filling the entire sky.


NASA illustration of the Auroral Oval

2. It has to be winter in order to view the night sky (the sun doesn’t set in the summertime).

3. A climate with low precipitation lessens the likelihood of cloud cover.

4. Minimize light pollution – go somewhere that’s far from streetlights, billboards, etc.

5. Luck.

For his composition, composer Christopher Theofanidis draws equally from science and from earthbound attempts to make sense of the phenomenon – the mythology – incorporating a children’s story to be read by a narrator.

Coordinating all the elements is a different kind of challenge. The narration and visuals for the Grant Park production are bound tightly to Theofanidis’s piece. Thus, conductor Carlos Kalmar can reference a click track. Dr. Salgado will control the visuals from a laptop, and narrator Frank Babbitt (violist in the Lyric Opera Orchestra) will have a score with musical cues.

Dr. Salgado co-founded KV 265 (the catalog number of Mozart’s Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) with Chicago musician Anne Barlow to combine the presentation of art and music.

Listen to the WFMT Arts Feature produced by Lisa Flynn with commentary by astronomer José Salgado and the Christopher Theofanidis.


See actual footage to be used in the Grant Park concert:


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