Holst's The Planets
Would high definition space images from NASA add to or detract from The Planets, asks Rebecca Franks
Less than a day after David Cameron concluded the Conservative party conference in the ICC in Birmingham, the city’s weekend-long Sounds of Space festival began in the inter-connected Symphony Hall. First up, a lecture asking ‘What would a martian look like?’ Second in line: a concert spectacular twinning Holst’s The Planets with HD footage of space from NASA.
As I made my maiden voyage from Bristol to Birmingham for the blast-off of this sell-out UK tour by the Houston Symphony Orchestra, I had a secret hope a little green alien might be revealed in those NASA images. I’d keep alert. Astronomical revelations aside, I was curious to see how photos of the planets would work with Holst’s seven-movement masterpiece. Would scientific fact bear any relation to music illustrating the astrological characters of the planets? Would the images detract from or add to the music?
Before the chance to answer these questions in The Planets, though, an energetic first half. Stravinsky’s Fireworks began the concert with a fizz-pop of instrumental colour. (No matching pyrotechnic displays on the large screen hovering ready behind the orchestra for the Holst, sadly. Nor a hint of an ooh or aah from the audience.) On to John Adams’s Dr Atomic Symphony, distilled from his 2005 opera of the same name.
Telling the story of the father of the atomic bomb, J Robert Oppenheimer, the three-movement piece begins in the laboratory. Frenzied strings, strident brass and tuned gongs ratchet up the tension; ‘Panic’ ensues in the second movement. Was Oppenheimer engineering the end of the human race? In ‘Trinity’, the codeword for the first test explosion, we teetered over the edge into the atomic age. (Thankfully, without corresponding images.)
And then Mars loomed. A hostile red surface appeared on screen, Holst's music an ominous, percussive march on stage – if martians existed, we'd be at war with them. Here image and music seemed to coincide. (Although, as the camera zoomed around Mars, the surreal level of detail left me unable to believe the images were real. It all felt a bit like a computer game.) Venus was less bringer of peace and more a blue-green nightmare of suplhuric acid; Mercury was pretty dull in visual terms compared to its lively music.
Jupiter conjured a smile, thanks to director Duncan Copp's clever touch. Here's Jupiter. We zoomed out. Oh no, that's just one of its moons. The planet loomed large in the background. Enormous, in fact. The expansiveness of 'I vow to thee my country' seemed to match its appearance, even if Jupiter's furious red spot, and swirling storms and winds screaming round hardly seemed to be the 'bringer of jollity'.
My overriding impression, apart from moments of wonder at the reality of our solar system, and enjoyment of the Houston Symphony’s fine performance, was just how empty space seems. And perhaps this is why I felt like there was something lacking. Whereas Holst anthropomorphizes the planets, NASA shows them to be inhospitable places, full of wonder, but devoid of life.
Yet the most effective moment came at the end. The cool blue Neptune appeared on screen; Holst’s music suggesting both the ‘mystic’ character of the planet and distance. We were in the outer reaches of the solar system, a long way from home. The off-stage chorus began its ethereal music. Was it a message to return home, or was it the call of the faraway, the voices of another life-form luring us deeper into space?
Rebecca Franks is online editor and staff writer of BBC Music Magazine