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The Planets,  An HD Odyssey:  Houston Symphony, Hans Graf (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 10.10.2010 (SRT)


Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony

Holst: The Planets

This evening’s “Grand Gala Concert” has been a long time in the planning. Marking the official reopening of the Usher Hall after the completion of its epic renovation, the Houston Symphony brought The Planets with a fabulous backdrop of visual images.

Their “HD Odyssey” brought not just the music but stunning photography care of NASA, giving us a virtual tour of each planet as we hear Holst’s music. Producer/Director Duncan Copp’s images are truly breathtaking, made all the more so for being projected into a darkened hall onto a 24 foot screen in High Definition. The advantages are the richness that they (sometimes) add to the music.

Jupiter works best – it’s so well done that it’s like watching choreography – with Mars and Neptune particularly striking too. Venus works less well and the serene images of Uranus are positively anachronistic viewed alongside Holst’s music until, that is, a virtual eclipse seems to fit the final bars beautifully.

The disadvantage is that the images act like a straightjacket on the conductor’s beat: in an interview for The Times Graf admits that he has had to work at getting the transitions precisely timed to the film and the music doesn’t have the space to breathe that a conductor might otherwise want. Still, as a one-off experience it was unforgettable. A DVD is available if you want to sample it in the comfort of your own home.

As for the playing, Houston showed the laser-sharp clarity that has become the hallmark of the very best American orchestras, every phrase clipped and precise without becoming soulless, which has the effect of shining a light into every corner of the score. This fitted Stravinsky’s dazzling Fireworks well, but it added a special touch of glory to Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony which adapts music from the opera without being bound by its narrative or structure.

Adams’ pounding ostinati gave the work his trademark hypnotic resonance, darkly atmospheric in the central “Panic” section. The final moments, too, worked brilliantly, the pumping rhythmic pulse contrasting with a poignantly beautiful trumpet solo which encapsulates the achievement and apprehension of Oppenheimer’s character at what he must have known would be a pivotal moment in human history.

The Planets: an HD Odyssey
tours to various venues around the country until October 16th.

Simon Thompson


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