Usually, when I go to a concert, nothing can distract from the delight of live music. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s multi-media performance on October 14 at Symphony Center — titled “The Galaxy’s Greatest Hits” as a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar mission and the breadth of the U.S. manned space program — was an exception. This was only because the musicians were upstaged by Charlie Duke, who in 1972 became the youngest man ever to walk on the moon.
Only 12 humans have ever walked on the moon, and now I’ve been in the same room with one of them. Scratch that off the bucket list.
Duke, now an 84-year-old retired U.S. Air Force Reserves brigadier general and businessman, was in graduate school at MIT, after serving as an Air Force fighter pilot, when he was accepted into NASA’s astronaut program. He went on to serve on five Apollo missions, and his moonwalk during the Apollo 16 mission came when he was 37 years old. He said he had so much fun on the moon that he didn’t want to come back.
The master of ceremonies who interviewed Duke onstage was a fictional astronaut of note: George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu, the helmsman of the USS Enterprise on the original TV show version of Star Trek. Avoiding Trekkie camp, Takei was dressed in a tuxedo, though at the end of the concert he delivered the Vulcan hand salute and the series’ signature line, “Live long and prosper.”
Founded in 1906, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is Australia’s oldest. It held its own as it shared the stage with Duke, Takei, famed Chicago jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, and dulcet-toned Australian jazz trumpeter James Morrison. Also onstage was a giant video screen replaying the heroics of the space age and showing gorgeous views of Earth from outer space and the surfaces of the moon and Mars.
Under the lively direction of conductor Benjamin Northey — standing in for chief conductor Sir Andrew Davis, better known in Chicago as musical director of the Lyric Opera — the orchestra stretched from movie and TV soundtracks to classical music to jazzy tributes to flight and celestial bodies.
Little surprise that the concert opened with the fanfare from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, familiar to anyone who has seen late film director Stanley Kubrick’s spaced-out classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The first half of the concert was dominated by John Williams’ familiar music for movies such as Star Wars and E.T the Extra-terrestrial, as well as the 1960s TV show Lost in Space. Swelling strings, booming brass, and thundering drums got the appropriate workout.
The second half of the concert was more diverse. It opened with “Mars, the Bringer of War,” a movement from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Its appropriately martial tone was accompanied by footage of the red planet taken by the unmanned NASA probes. Claude Debussy’s romantic Clair de Lune followed. The main theme to the movie Apollo 13, composed by James Horner, provided a brief return to Hollywood in space.
The concert then swung to swing. Morrison took the solo spotlight for Fly Me to the Moon, a 1954 popular tune composed by Bart Howard and most closely associated with the vocals of Frank Sinatra. Elling, a Grammy Award winner regarded by many as one of the era’s greatest voices, followed with his interpretation of Duke Ellington’s I Like the Sunrise. He then joined Morrison for a rendition of Come Fly With Me, by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, a 1957 song again associated with Sinatra (and numerous airline commercials). The orchestra returned to Star Wars for the finale of the regular program, then Elling and Morrison brought it all back to Earth with Louis Armstrong’s classic What a Wonderful World.
The evening was highly entertaining and a little bit inspirational and nostalgic, at least for the baby boomers in the audience who were children at a time when America literally reached for the stars. The globe my parents got me when I was a kid had the flight path John Glenn took on Friendship 7 in 1962 as the first American to orbit the Earth. We got our first color TV in July 1969 just in time to experience Apollo 11’s giant leap for mankind.
It was nice to feel that young again, if only for a couple of hours.