The Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) closed the Usher Hall Sunday Classics “International Concert Series 2018-19” in style today with “The Planets: an HD Odyssey” performed to a packed concert venue that had nearly every seat on three levels taken.
Conducted by Ben Palmer, this was, as usual in the series, one of two halves with the first half with music that many people who claim to know no classical music at all will recognise at least in parts without even recognising it as classical music. That is one of the mysteries of classical music, people absorb it from so many different sources without ever realising its origins and without realising that this is not music for an elite, but music, as it has always been, for everyone. Many people’s exposure to classic music is via the medium of film, and in keeping with our second half concert, space and travel in space took much of the programming theme with each work accompanied by some outstanding photography of our universe as seen from camera lenses outside Earth’s atmosphere. That sense of travelling into new and uncharted space is now associated as much with some of this music as the original mysticism behind it (Also sprach Zarathustra) or the dance rhythm of its waltz (The Blue Danube).
An interesting mix of music in our opening half of this concert gave us
Richard Strauss - Also sprach Zarathustra (opening)
Johann Strauss II - The Blue Danube
JS Bach - Toccata and Fugue in D minor
John Adams – Short Ride in A Fast Machine
Beethoven - Symphony No. 7 (second movement)
Williams - Main theme from Star Wars
Richard Strauss - Also sprach Zarathustra and Johann Strauss II - The Blue Danube will be remembered by many cinema goers as the main title theme and the travelling in space music from Stanley Kubrick’s famous “2001 A Space Odyssey” film, but those of us old enough to remember watching them on television will always associate the first music with the Apollo Moon landings programme.
JS Bach (orch. Stokowski) - Toccata and Fugue in D minor is an odd work always, but known to so many people as a prelude to impending menace or danger on their film and television screens. Published almost a century after the composer’s death, this truly is a work that has taken on a life of its own from the 20th century onwards
Jarring perhaps with everything that we had until now heard, but in a pleasant way, the very distinctive percussion driven John Adams – Short Ride in A Fast Machine
Somehow, in cinema, the music of Beethoven never seems to be far behind and I always make instant connections with it to another Stanley Kubrick film “A Clockwork Orange”. This work though from Beethoven - Symphony No. 7 has seen so many different uses in cinema over the years.
Saving for last though is one of the most iconic film themes written in cinema history, and certainly in Science Fiction cinema, John Williams - Main theme from Star Wars. With images so identifiable now of Imperial Storm Troopers and Rebel Forces in combat, Jedi Knights and light-sabres flashing, it is perhaps only when you see a work like this performed by a live orchestra that you begin to truly understand more of its complexity, ingenuity and power.
For the second half of our programme, our main event as we travel the solar system to the music of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” performed against stunning NASA images of our solar system’s planets in high definition. Here, the work of producer/director Duncan Copp matched perfectly the music of RSNO and conductor Ben Palmer.
Holst was always clear from the beginning that the planets in his music – Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were those of astrology and mythology and not a scientific astronomical exploration. Just as well, as what little Holst and his contemporaries would have understood of our solar system at the time he was creating this work (1914-1918 roughly) would have been so out of date now as to be laughable, and no one then could have imagined that un-manned probes have not only gone out from Earth to all of these heavenly bodies, but photographed them in detail and even entered the atmosphere of some, and landing on one of them. Had Holst had these scientific facts at his disposal, then he would have known that the planet Venus in particular is a deceptive beauty in the sky with a truly inhospitable atmosphere.
Somehow though, none of this scientific fact changes in the slightest the music of “The Planets” and we seem to forever be attached in ideas more mystical than scientific to the planets, and no one seems to have captured their personalities and emotions quite like Gustav Holst.
Beautiful and wonderful music, but as it should be the true beauty and wonder of “The Planets” eclipsing even Holst’s music.
Review by Tom King