The Phoenix Symphony’s latest performance of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” is a multimedia production complete with high-definition projections of those planets from the Mars Rovers and other NASA footage.
We spoke to Michael Christie, the symphony’s music director, about the concert and the piece itself.
Question: That’s cool that you’re using projections from NASA.
Answer: I’ve done different approaches with “The Planets.” Obviously, straight performances are the usual route. But there was another program called Beyond the Score that was a little more historical about the evolution of the piece itself. The images the audience will see in this performance are strictly related to what people are hearing. There’s no educational component. The Houston Symphony worked with the NASA folks in Texas to put this together. I watched the video of their performance, and it’s really spectacular. It’s all in high definition. So people at Symphony Hall will see as vivid images as you would get in an IMAX movie theater.
And they are completely up to date. There’s even footage during the section devoted to Mars of the recent rover where they had the balloons surrounding it, bouncing on the surface of the planet. So it’s really pretty cool. Those images are probably less than a year old. There’s no scratchy imagery from 1970s launches going on. That’s always a danger that you try to present something and people are like, “Oh my God, I haven’t seen an image that bad in ages.” So it’s great how vivid the imagery is.
Also, the person who’s operating the video triggers the next event by computer, so if I happen to play one section a little faster or slower, they can make that seamless jump. In the past, you’d do those kind of projects and you’d end up finishing five seconds before or after the film. But this technology is much more adaptable to live performance, which is a huge burden off of me. In the past, I was never able to enjoy the performance, because I was always worried about how the music was lining up with the screen.
Q: So Holst was inspired by astrology as much as the actual planets. How important is an understanding of that aspect to the audience enjoyment of the piece?
A: The astrological part is hugely important. That’s one of the interesting things about what people will experience. Images of Mars are not necessarily warlike (laughs). And Venus is not necessarily loving. But it’s really interesting to know a little bit about the astrology and then actually see the images.
Holst himself was deeply involved in that. The other thing that’s interesting is the fact that this was all written during the World War I era. So I think he was also responding to the horrors of war and how the Industrial Revolution transformed us from more of a rural, agrarian mentality to a hyper-industrialized society. Holst had a lot of stuff going on when he was writing this piece in terms of context and packing a lot of harmonic, rhythmic associations into the music. A lot of the things, you don’t even really pay attention to. I love the piece because every time you play it, you’re like, “Oh my God, he connected that one to that one. How cool is that?”
He just captures a lot of emotions by going through these planets, and I think the astrology helps us with that. When he gets to Mars the Bringer of War, he makes such a mechanical sound happen with such a relentlessness about it. Or with Venus the Bringer of Love, just how patient and gentle he can make the orchestra sound. Or in Jupiter, he makes the orchestra just jump for joy on the stage. It’s really neat that he could do that.
At the same time, he retains a sense of Britishness. But I think the fact that as a British composer, he gets so emotional with the music and so demonstrative is quite special because we typically think of British music as kind of humble — beautiful but humble. And here it’s beautiful but very raw and personal. That’s what I really love about it. And the use of the orchestra is awesome. He incorporates some instruments that you normally only find in a wind band, like a euphonium, and there are extra horns. So he’s definitely trying to create a different sound with the orchestra, something maybe more all-encompassing.
Q: Is it true that Holst didn’t consider “The Planets” to be among his best work and resented that that’s what he was increasingly known for?
A: It’s the one-hit wonder that a lot of these composers confront. You wonder whether as a composer, if in his time he’s going, “Oh man, why doesn’t anyone pay any attention to my concerto or symphony?” — would he have been excited to know that 100 years hence, when people think of the Top 40 or even the Top 20 orchestra pieces of all time that “The Planets” is there?
At the time, I’m sure it was very frustrating because he was probably doing all sorts of wonderful things. But in terms of his legacy, I would have to think he would be pretty stoked.