NASA film mixed with Houston Symphony’s “Planets” is a blast

By David Fleshler

At this late date, it may be asking too much of most people to sit for two hours with nothing more visually stimulating in front of them than 90 ordinary-looking people in evening clothes playing musical instruments.

The Houston Symphony provided one alternative Sunday evening at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale, coupling an outstanding performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets with high-definition film from NASA of Neptune, Mars and the rest.

Houston has an absolutely first-class orchestra. The sound is rich, full-bodied, refined and well-blended. In preparing for this tour, the orchestra had clearly rehearsed the program to the hilt, playing with authority, immaculate technical precision and panache.

The program, The Planets – An HD Odyssey, produced by Duncan Copp, opened with interviews with NASA scientists and proceeded to films focusing on each of the individual planets, as the orchestra played the section of the suite devoted to that planet. As the orchestra, led by music director Hans Graf, thundered through the music of Mars, the Bringer of War, images of the red planet’s mountains, gullies and craters flew across the screen.  The film panned over the planet’s rocky, rust-colored surface as if you were flying across it at low altitude. Graf drew maximum drama from the music, which the film brilliantly matched, in the long crescendo leading to the climax in Saturn, for example.

The film gave particular attention to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, possibly the most intriguing places in the solar system today, as they provide the best chance of finding life outside Earth. Of course, Holst was inspired by the mythological properties of the gods for which the planets were named, which sometimes clashed with astronomical reality. He wrote gentle, floating music for Venus, whose 900-degree surface temperature makes it the hottest planet in the solar system, “I think he got Venus wrong,” one scientist in the film said of Holst. “He had no idea it was such a hellish place.”

Obviously this visual approach won’t work for all music, but for evocative tone poems such as The Planets, which doesn’t demand an enormous amount of concentration to appreciate, a well-chosen film enhances the experience.

In the first half, the orchestra performed Stravinsky’s early Scherzo Fantastique and Dutilleux’s Timbres, espace, mouvement (Timbres, Space, Movement). The Stravinsky came off with extremely tight ensemble work in the strings and evocative, rich-toned playing in the woodwinds. The Dutilleux, subtitled “The Starry Night” with its searching, otherworldly harmonies and weird orchestral textures, was a spacey, mysterious appetizer for the Holst.

It would have been a bit jarring to combine The Planets with something from the 18th or 19th centuries and both these compositions worked well with the main piece on the program. But the first half might have been a little heavy for a crowd that showed up mainly to see films of Jupiter and Mars.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “NASA film mixed with Houston Symphony’s “Planets” is a blast”

  1. Posted Feb 01, 2010 at 5:19 pm by Uncle Ash

    “Gustav Holst’s The Planets with high-definition film from NASA of Neptune, Mars and the rest.”

    … that sounds awesome! Wish had been there.

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Mon Feb 1, 2010
at 12:03 pm
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