Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra music director Scott Terrell wanted to come up with a 50th anniversary season finale that would highlight the musicianship of his ensemble as well as innovations in 21st-century orchestral programming.
Houston, it turned out, had the solution to his problem.
The Philharmonic's final bow this season will present a very familiar work, Gustav Holst's The Planets, accompanied by high-definition video of the solar system from the Hubble Telescope and other resources.
"In the past few years, no project has gotten more attention than what the Houston Symphony did in 2008 with The Planets project," Terrell says. "It started out, they were just going to do The Planets with pictures, and they invited NASA, and NASA said, 'Well, you know, we have a lot better pictures now.'
"So NASA and the Houston Symphony engaged this filmmaker, and this project was born, and it played to roaring ovations and sold-out audiences. It really showed what technology can do, particularly science technology with a film score that has been around 100 years."
This is far from just sticking some pictures up on a screen behind the orchestra. The symphony and NASA partnered with filmmaker Duncan Copp, known for the Apollo mission documentary In the Shadow of the Moon and numerous installments of the PBS series Nova, to make a movie to accompany performances of The Planets.
"There is, of course, a film-scorelike quality to the music, and combining it with imagery has been done before, though not to my mind with such sophistication," New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote of a performance by the Houston Symphony and conductor Hans Graf.
The film is now marketed by a major New York-based agency that generally promotes performing artists.
"It is like bringing in a guest artist," Terrell says. "They come with a tech crew. It's HD with two screens, and things move across the screens, so it is quite a technical show. It's not just a 'roll the film and here we go' kind of thing. They make sure things go as they are supposed to, and they have a very good understanding of the piece."
Terrell, who has watched the film more than a dozen times, says it has "soft edges" so the orchestra does not have to be in precise synchronization with the film, "but in the general vicinity" of certain segments. He says that is important to allow for interpretation of the music, "so you're not locked into it having to be done this one way."
The film, of course, offers a new way to look at and think about the music.
There has been nearly a century of evolution in space exploration since Holst wrote The Planets, in 1914-16. Pluto even became a planet and was demoted in the time since the piece was written. (Pluto was identified as a planet four years before Holst's death in 1934, and he was asked about writing a Pluto movement but refused as he was frustrated that The Planets had overshadowed his other work.)
The Planets was actually more of a spiritual meditation on the other worlds than a literal interpretation. Back then, the only images Holst had to work with were drawings and grainy photographs taken from telescopes. More astrological than astronomical, The Planets assigns each world characteristics in the names of its seven movements, some evoking the traits of the Roman gods: "Mars, the Bringer of War"; "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity"; "Neptune, the Mystic"; etc.
Now, of course, there are realistic images from the planets, even rovers speeding along some of their surfaces. Terrell says the film attempts to marry the spiritual nature of the music with the literal images.
"Duncan Copp really finds in the music the inspiration for portraying the planet in the visual," Terrell says.
Sometimes, that turned out to be a challenge, as was the case with "Venus, the Bringer of Peace," a planet that in reality is not as lovely as the music with which it is paired.
"Venus is a really desolate and rather cold planet visually," Terrell says. "So the challenge for the filmmakers was to capture that sort of peaceful, tranquil Venus as the composer intended, but not the true, literal, how they see it scientifically.
"That's where the creative film element comes in. You have all this technology and all these images, much more than Holst ever did, and so we have this gods-inspired music compared with what we now actually see."
In addition to powerful images, the audience will hear about as much power as the Lexington Philharmonic has delivered in recent years: 80 to 90 instrumentalists will be onstage, plus more than 50 women from the Lexington Singers.
"It's a big piece, a big undertaking," Terrell says. "The audience is in for a great treat."