Houston Symphony, Barbican, London

The Planets-An HD Odyssey
Financial Times

By Richard Fairman

Every conductor would love to wield a charmed baton but few have been so fortunate. Though Hans Graf may not lay claim to magical powers when he conducts, there is always a chance that the players sitting in front of him will be showered with stardust – for his is uniquely a baton that has been into space and back. The stick was carried aboard the space shuttle last year by an astronaut devotee of Graf’s orchestra.

The Houston Symphony’s seven-city UK tour, which ended at the Barbican on Saturday, was about reinforcing a brand. The main work that the orchestra and Graf, its music director since 2001, brought with them across the Atlantic was Holst’s The Planets, which they performed in a multimedia presentation accompanied by a film using some of the latest high-definition images supplied by Nasa.

Before the main event the programme filled in with music by Barber and Stravinsky. The orchestra was seated on the flat rather than being raised up at the back and the hard cutting edge that Barber wrote into Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, originally a ballet, sounded somewhat blunted. Stravinsky’s Le chant du rossignol, though, was crisply played and very well detailed.

With lift-off achieved, the film of The Planets proved to be an equal blend of art and science. Ideally, it would have been good to have a bigger screen but the images were stunningly clear and often beautiful. The director, Duncan Copp, had assembled some of the best images from Nasa spacecraft and supplemented them with graphics derived from scientific data.

The result, admittedly, is a mismatch. Holst had astrology in mind when he devised The Planets, so the atmospheric pieces that he created do not fit what we know now from science: “Venus the Bringer of Peace” hardly describes a planet of scorching temperatures any more than “Jupiter the Bringer of Jollity” could be inspired by a gas giant. Copp’s film, however, bridged the artistic gap with skill and Graf led his players in a brisk, decisive performance that meant the music never seemed less awesome than the images. Mission accomplished. (4 star rating)