Monday, November 11, 2013

The Planets

I perused the 2013-2014 season program of concerts carefully.  I couldn’t afford to go to every production, as much as I adore Maestra Marin Alsop, the first female to lead a major American orchestra, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. One concert in particular caught my eye.  I would simply have to have tickets to that when I purchased this season’s series.  It was for a performance of The Planets, by Gustav Holst.  But the experience would not include just fabulous music.  The program’s description enticed me with so much more…

Maestra Alsop had devised a production that blended both science and symphony.  What could be better than that?  For one, Alsop invited internationally acclaimed astrophysicist Mario Livio to give a lecture about his impression of the composer’s remarkable work and to describe in historic detail how the music artfully painted a symphonic portrait of some of the planets orbiting our sun.  

Dr. Livio is a senior astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute, having joined the staff in 1991, a year after Hubble's launching.  Livio majored in physics and mathematics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, obtained his M.Sc. degree in theoretical particle physics at the Weizmann Institute and his Ph.D. in theoretical astrophysics in Tel Aviv.  My own nephew, Mike Tobler, majored in astrophysics at the University of California at Santa Cruz a few years ago and teaches mathematics now.  And the father of my brother’s wife, Jane, Frits Smit (now in his 90s), spent a good part of his career as a scientist in Los Angeles working on the Hubble telescope, so the subject of Hubble and our planets is quite near to my heart.

For another, this particular concert would be part of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s “Off The Cuff” series, a more casual evening with an earlier start and finish, including a talk following the symphonic presentation.  Not only would Dr. Livio describe Holst’s thought processes while composing his work, but he would be available to answer questions about his own illustrious career afterward.

The Orion nebula, photographed
by the Hubble space telescope
Understandably, I could hardly wait for Saturday night’s performance of The Planets to begin.  The evening was quite chilly, so I donned festive sufi pants in black brocade by Renaissance costume designer Moresco, which I’ve owned for at least a decade, and topped them with a sparkly sweater by Boston Proper that I bought last winter.  I added gleaming cubic zirconia earrings that were a birthday gift from my best friend, Kari’s, parents a couple of years ago, and kept the look more fun than formal with a pair of sky-high patent red heels by Betsy Johnson.

On Saturday night Dr. Livio wove a fascinating tale of how Gustav Holst came to write his first and only work for a very large orchestra while earning a living as a creative but obscure music teacher and organist in London.  By happenstance, Holst took a vacation to Italy with friends in the summer of 1913 and stayed at a hotel where some guests were entertaining themselves by observing the heavens through a hobby telescope.  Holst became entranced with the stars, but from an astrological perspective more than an astronomical one.  He spent the next two years composing “mood pictures”, as he referred to them, about the planets which form the basis for horoscopic influence on man’s character: Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune.

People often wonder why Holst didn’t write a movement about planet earth.  It’s because the earth isn’t included in most astrological charts.  And, of course, Pluto had not yet been discovered when Holst wrote his scores.  Unfortunately, our most luckless sphere has since been demoted from planet status, lending Holst’s music an almost prophetic quality.  Another interesting characteristic of the composer’s work is the order in which each piece is played.  First comes Mars and Venus, followed by Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.  This is not the order in which these orbs circle the sun.  But it is the succession in which they appear in the horoscope, hence the composer’s choice.  And, musically, while each piece is beautiful when played on its own, when played together in the order in which they were written, the overall effect creates a stunning symphonic masterpiece, which catapulted the notoriously unassuming composer into the limelight, with both the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony fighting to be first to premier the work in America.

Gustav Holst
As if all that acoustic stimulation was not enough, Dr. Livio chose a series of amazing, high-resolution photographs of the planets, all taken by the Hubble telescope, to be projected onto a large screen over the orchestra during the performance.  The BSO’s video technician, Lee Mills, artfully arranged the photographs to appear intermittently as the “tone poems” about each planet were played.  The effect was stunning. I was enthralled.

After the performance, Maestra Alsop and Dr. Livio took their seats in folding chairs on the stage and opened themselves up to questions from the audience.  Microphones were placed in the aisles for the public to approach to ask their questions of one or both masters.  This being Maryland, home of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the Space Telescope Science Institute at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel (where my dear friend and colleague, Frank Morgan, works as an astrophysicist coordinating experiments on the Mars orbiter), the questions from the audience were complex, at one point causing Ms. Alsop to remark to Dr. Livio: “See, I told you to expect interesting questions from the Baltimore audience!”  There were several intellectual questions from children, all aspiring scientists, no doubt.  Only one question seemed out of place, that from an older woman who wanted to know if Saturn’s rings were “attached” to the planet and, when Dr. Livio gently explained that the rings were composed of orbiting particulate matter, then wanted to know how they managed to stay put (gravity was the answer), which generated a soft chuckle from the crowd.

Mario Livio
A quiet dinner following the concert at Corner BYOB restaurant in the Hampden section of Baltimore gave me plenty of time to ruminate about the wondrous music and stupendous photography as I enjoyed a prime lamb loin chop, roasted fingerling potatoes and a glass of the house Cotes Du Rhone (the establishment has a liquor license now, although they didn’t for several years).  One of the questions asked of Maestra Alsop following the concert was if there would be any more productions like this one which mixed science with music.  Ms. Alsop replied that, since 2015 would mark the centennial of the discovery of general relativity, she could easily see herself putting together a symphonic tribute to Albert Einstein to commemorate his historic theory.  I can relate to that!

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