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The Symphony as a Vessel to Visit Other Worlds

01.30.10
The Planets-An HD Odyssey
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

The British composer Gustav Holst was an astrology buff when he composed his most famous work, “The Planets,” in 1914-16. His portraits of the planets were inspired by their mythological names and astrological associations. The Earth is not included because the suite is about what the seven other planets (Pluto had not yet been discovered) meant to earthlings. What the planets might actually be like was not the point.

So what would Holst have thought about “The Planets — an HD Odyssey,” presented by the Austrian conductor Hans Graf and the excellent Houston Symphony at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night? As the orchestra played a vibrantly colorful performance of the suite on a stage with dimmed lighting, video was shown of the actual planets taken from explorations of the solar system over the last 35 years, mostly from NASA projects.

The images in the movie, produced and directed by Duncan Copp, were often astonishing. Photographs from rovers and satellites, radar images and computer-generated graphics were combined to give the audience the impression of circling individual planets and sometimes flying over their awesomely barren landscapes.
Still, I had to multi-task to appreciate this odyssey. The riveting video tended to overwhelm Holst’s nearly 60-minute suite. There is, of course, a film-score-like quality to the music, and combining it with imagery has been done before, though not to my mind with such sophistication.

Still, as the conductor Simon Rattle wrote in the liner notes for his exciting live 2006 recording of “The Planets” with the Berlin Philharmonic, it is not Holst’s fault that every film composer took the score as “their toolbox, and stole shamelessly.” Now that the work is out of copyright, “they don’t even bother to change the notes,” Mr. Rattle added.

“The Planets” is inventive and ingeniously orchestrated, with resonances of Debussy and even early Schoenberg. And for all of the music’s effectiveness at evoking the mythos of the solar system, there is something charmingly British about the suite, especially “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity.” You imagine hardy Brits after a cricket match lifting mugs of ale, troops parading in patriotic triumph, and nostalgic episodes of country life in the Cotswolds.

“Mercury, the Winged Messenger,” is a like a brilliant, scintillating scherzo, with the orchestral colorings of Debussy’s “Jeux” yet ominously spiked with sledgehammer chords.
I

n a filmed introduction to the performance with snippets of interviews with people from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., one scientist says that Holst “got Venus all wrong,” because he had “no idea that Venus was such a hellish place.” True.

But Holst’s diaphanous, harmonically Impressionist “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” is utterly alluring music, beautifully played here, and certainly evokes the human fancy of what Venus might be like as we see it from the earth. And the work ends rapturously with the ethereal “Neptune, the Mystic,” which concludes with the haunting strands of an offstage women’s chorus (here, members of the Houston Symphony Chorus).

Mr. Graf is now in his eighth season in Houston, and his orchestra is in good shape. The program began with Stravinsky’s “Scherzo Fantastique,” a glittering early work from 1907-08 in which the 25-year-old composer reveals his debt to his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, but also his enthralled awareness of Debussy and Ravel.
Ending the first half with Henri Dutilleux’s “Timbres, espace, mouvement, ou la nuit étoilée” (Timbres, Space, Movement, or ‘The Starry Night’) was a great idea. That elusive yet inexorable piece from the mid-1970s, revised in 1990 and scored intriguingly for orchestra without violins and violas, had a cosmic allure that ideally complemented the Holst. And no attention-grabbing videos.