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‘Airborne Symphony’ takes off in SF at last

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Curious Flights presents the Bay Area premiere of “The Airborne Symphony,” a 1946 work for orchestra, chorus, soloists and narrator by American composer Marc Blitzstein. (Courtesy Katherine Lawhead)

The music of Marc Blitzstein isn’t often performed in the Bay Area, and Brenden Guy of Curious Flights thinks it’s time to introduce audiences to one of the composer’s most ambitious works.

“The Airborne Symphony” makes its West Coast premiere Saturday, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, in an event Guy calls “long overdue.”

“It’s an amazing piece,” says Guy, who launched Curious Flights (which presents rarely performed works) in 2013. “This performance coincides with its 70th anniversary. We didn’t intend for that to happen, but it’s taken several years to put this project together.”

Scored for orchestra, chorus, vocal soloists and narrator, Blitzstein’s “symphony/oratorio” is an unusual work that traces the history of human flight.

“It takes you from Greek mythology — with characters like Icarus – through the Wright Brothers and flight in war, especially World War II,” says Guy. “Oddly enough, it was commissioned by the U.S. Army, so it had a bit of propaganda intention behind it. There are parts where the chorus is singing like Nazis to a sort of grotesque march that was designed as a tongue-in-cheek parody – but hearing it now is a little unnerving, a little too real.”

Blitzstein, described as “the social conscience of American music,” is perhaps best known for his 1937 “The Cradle Will Rock,” which was written for the Federal Theatre Project and adapted for film in 1999 by actor Tim Robbins.

He composed “The Airborne Symphony” as a film soundtrack; when the film was scrapped, he reworked it for the concert stage. Leonard Bernstein championed the score; the great conductor led the now-defunct New York City Symphony in its 1946 premiere, with Orson Welles as narrator.

Blitzstein’s career might have yielded many more works, but in 1964, he was beaten and killed in Martinique by three sailors who claimed he propositioned one of them. “It was a hate crime,” says Guy. “As a result of his untimely death, a lot of his music was unpublished, and today it’s rarely performed.”

The Curious Flights performance features tenor Brian Thorsett, baritone Efrain Solis and David Latulippe as Narrator. Marin Symphony music director Alasdair Neale conducts the program, which also includes music by Barber, Copland and Korngold.

“I’m thrilled that we finally put this project into action,” says Guy. “And I’m very excited to see the audience’s reaction to it. The more I do these concerts, the more I see that people are really willing to come to things that are off the beaten track.”

IF YOU GO

The Airborne Symphony
Presented by Curious Flights
Where: San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. May 28
Tickets: $15 to $50
Contact: www.curiousflights.com

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