The Houston Symphony gave the piece its world premiere Thursday night in Jones Hall. Casually clad in his customary Nehru-style jacket rather than the formal tail coat that is the uniform for the male orchestra members, music director Hans Graf led a precise, powerful performance of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” But despite the rousing music-making, the accompanying visuals—stunning high-definition outer-space images provided by NASA and projected on a giant screen behind the orchestra—were the star.
The video is the brainchild of Dr. Duncan Copp, a British space scientist and maker of several science-oriented documentaries. It features images taken from explorations of the solar system over the past 35 years. Anybody who enjoys looking at National Geographic’s legendarily dramatic photos will relish this multimedia exercise, which the Houston Symphony is taking to New York’s Carnegie Hall and (doubtless because it’s the home of the Kennedy Space Center) Florida.
In The Planets—An HD Odyssey, each of the planets in Holst’s evocative 1916 suite—Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune—is introduced floating serenely in the black vastness of space. (Movie buffs will be reminded of the wheel-shaped space station slowly spinning in waltz time in Stanley Kubrick’s trippy 2001: A Space Odyssey.) But all kinds of other images, both almost blindingly colorful and simple black-and-white, quickly appear, sometimes several at once on a split-screen basis.
There are high-altitude pictures of crater-pocked plains. There are close-ups of mysterious things that look like microscope slides. There are images that look like mold or virus cultures in a petri dish. And sometimes we seem to be zooming over the valleys and mountains of a planet on a low-flying magic carpet, in the enjoyably stomach-churning manner of Imax films. But fancy cinematography is often totally unnecessary because things like the rings of Saturn and just the sight of eerie planets zillions of miles from ours are plenty impressive all on their own.
In keeping with the concert’s space theme, the program also included Henri Dutilleux’s atmospheric “Timbres, espace, mouvement, ou La nuit étoilée” (Timbres, Space, Movement, or The Starry Night). With a brooding interlude highlighting the cellos and double basses slipped between the dreamy movements called (in English) “Nebula” and “Constellations” in 1990, the 1978 work was inspired by “The Starry Night,” Vincent van Gogh’s classic painting of a dark sky full of blazing stars and swirling comet tails.
The opening work, Igor Stravinsky’s fizzy “Scherzo fantastique,” seemed much less apt. His second composition, it dates from 1908 but is far from (eek!) “modern”-sounding. But his Opus 4, “Feu d’artifice” (Fireworks), had at least some connection with the sky and made a spirited encore.