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Out of this world: An exclusive sneak preview of Orbit, Houston Symphony's new space wonder

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Houston Symphony's Orbit—An HD Odyssey takes concert goers from earth to 250 miles above the surface of the Earth. Courtesy of Houston Symphony
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Footage is from the International Space Station, manned missions, unmanned weather and geology-focused satellites and from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Courtesy of Houston Symphony
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The premiere is set for Feb. 17-18 at Jones Hall. Photo by Joel Luks
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Producer/filmmaker Duncan Copp's second project with the Houston Symphony is also about audience development.  Courtesy of Houston Symphony
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Footage from the film. Courtesy of Houston Symphony
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Footage from the film. Courtesy of Houston Symphony

When a venture has great results, there's only one logical thing to do: Repeat it.

The Houston Symphony knew it was onto something good with The Planets - An HD Odyssey, a collaboration with producer/filmmaker Duncan Copp that wedded high-definition images of the solar system with the music of Gustav Holst's The Planets

A successful sold-out seven-city United Kingdom tour in 2010, which spanned from Edinburg to London, prompted a run out to Carnegie Hall in New York and earned revenue from rentals for orchestras in Cleveland, Greenville, Lexington, Denver, Fort Worth, Seattle, Bergen and Sydney was more than sufficient rationale for the Houston Symphony to do it again.

The new Orbit - An HD Odyssey is the sequel that's sure to wow based on an early rehearsal CultureMap received exclusive access to observe. Orbit uses stunning footage from the International Space Station, manned missions, unmanned weather and geology-focused satellites and from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. It's set to premiere at Jones Hall Feb. 17 and 18, 2012.

 "You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn't?” Adams said about the title of Short Ride in a Fast Machine.

 

"In some respects, sometimes the unmanned space flight program gets slightly overshadowed." Copp tells CultureMap. "But it's absolutely instrumental in us being able understand how our planet works. It's from these satellites that I have been able to acquire engaging, surreal looking images filled with aesthetic beauty."

Whether it is observing Earth from 250 miles above the surface, peeking into the world of astronauts preparing for launch, looking down on an aurora borealis from the Space Station, experiencing space flight or weather phenomena that thrills audiences, Copp hopes Orbit enjoys similar success.

Essentially, the approach of putting together The Planets and Orbit was the same. Yet different compositions, tempi and affect give each project individual tenor. 

"Pairing images and music is an organic process," Copp says. "You listen to the music to get a sense of what it's doing. You already have seen lots and lots of images and you get a sense of what those images mean to you. Then, you meld them together." 

This time around, the musical stakes are much higher and that was evident at a recent technical rehearsal at Jones Hall where the producer was present alongside representatives from Boeing, NASA's Johnson Space Center, United Space Alliance, Science Applications International Corporation, Enbridge Energy Company and film and music students from San Jacinto College.

 "I think it's really important what the Houston Symphony is trying to achieve, which is to expose classical music to a much broader range of people, people who would not necessarily come to hear a live performance," Copp says.

The Planets may be a colorful and evocative work, yet it doesn't come near to the technical and musical challenges of the chosen repertoire for Orbit: John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra

"There's certainly a narrative with the John Adams' piece because that's basically getting you from standstill to traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, which is effectively what you need to get into orbit," Copp says. "Hold on to your hats, it's going to be a fast ride."

From the onset of Short Ride, the persistent wood block, thrilling rhythms, fanfares and flourishes exemplify how the composer felt about the title of the four-minute minimalist work.

"You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn't?” is how Adams put it.

Listeners will readily recognize the first 90 seconds of Also Sprach Zarathustra — meaning Thus Spoke Zarathustra after the treatise by Nietzsche — its melody made notorious by Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The following 30 or so minutes, albeit more obscure, are no less tumultuous, thrilling and beautiful. 

It was important for Copp to include what he feels is a "ballet" between the International Space Station and the Shuttle. Just before it docks, the Shuttle executes a 360-degree rotation to ensure the underbelly is undamaged. When it finishes its mission and undocks, it flies in parallel to the station. Set to the music of Strauss, it takes on a poetic mood.

These space shows create additional revenue streams for the Houston Symphony — live music with film, like the Lord of the Rings and The Matrix screenings, are popular Jones Hall draws. In the end, the collaborations are about audience development. It's one of the salient aims of Copp's relationship with the Houston Symphony. 

"I think it's really important what the Houston Symphony is trying to achieve, which is to expose classical music to a much broader range of people, people who would not necessarily come to hear a live performance," Copp says. "We are hoping the pictures give them another excuse to come along, not as a substitute of feeling or thought to the music, but in a synergy."

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