An insightful 'Planets' from Houston Symphony and NASA

02.01.10
The Planets-An HD Odyssey
The Miami Herald

By David Fleshler

With all the competing high-tech distractions available today, classical concert programmers may be asking too much of most people to expect them to sit for two hours looking at nothing more visually stimulating than 90 ordinary people in evening clothes playing musical instruments.

The Houston Symphony provided one alternative Sunday night 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 other celestial orbs.

Houston has an absolutely first-class orchestra. Its sound is rich, full bodied, refined and well blended. In preparing for this tour, the musicians had clearly rehearsed to the hilt, and they performed 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 seven planets as the orchestra played the section of the suite devoted to it. (Holst, an astrology buff, did not include Earth or Pluto, the latter still undiscovered when he was composing The Planets in 1914-1916.)

As the musicians, 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 it were carrying you across it at low altitude. Graf drew maximum drama from the music, which the film brilliantly matched in, for example, the long crescendo leading to the climax in ``Saturn.''

The film gave particular attention to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, possibly the most intriguing places in the solar system, as they provide the best chance of finding extraterrestrial life. Of course, Holst was inspired by the mythological properties of the gods for which the planets were named, a narrative that 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. ``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 can enhance 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.

Combining The Planets with something from the 18th or 19th centuries would have been a bit jarring, and 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.