Review: The Planets and Deep Field
By Perry Tannenbaum
Charlotte Symphony hasfared well with Gustav Holst’s The Planets in the past, programming itno fewer than five times over the last 13 seasons in the orchestra’s Classics, KnightSounds, and LolliPops series. But it didn’t become a hot ticket until Christopher Warren-Green took over the reins as Symphony’s musical director. Back in the fall of 2010, Warren-Green inaugurated the KnightSounds Series with a “Planets!” extravaganza that included NASA animations projected over the musicians at Knight Theater as they played and narrative from a local TV meteorologist between movements. A mini planetarium was set up at the Bechtler Museum next door before the concert, and telescopes stationed outdoors, focused on Jupiter and other wonders in the sky, awaited concertgoers’ gazes afterwards. Every available seat was sold for that performance, so it was hardly a surprise that the next time Symphony offered Holst’s signature work in 2013, it led off the season.
At Belk Theater, Warren-Green could field the large orchestra prescribed in the composer’s subtitle, and the fortified corps benefited from enhanced acoustics – since the maiden concert at Knight Theater predated the installation there of a sorely needed acoustic shell. If the Knight Theater performance was distinguished by superior showmanship, the Belk Theater sequence excelled in authenticity and sonic brilliance. For the 2018 encore, the showmanship has returned! Most of it was lavished upon the first piece in the program, Eric Whitacre’s Deep Field.The Nevada native’s work premiered in 2015 but it was presented for the first time with a new film, Deep Field: The Impossible Magnitude of Our Universe,and a dedicated Deep Field smartphone app, to be activated by audience members when maestro Warren-Green gave his cue. Contributors to the film include scientists and visualizers from the Space Telescope Science Institute and Virtual Choir 5, which includes more than 8,000 voices, aged 4-87, from 120 countries around the globe. Source material for the film – and inspiration for the music – was the landmark “deep field” image produced by NASA’s Hubble Telescope in 1995, when it was trained on a seemingly blank and minuscule area of space for an epic 10 days and 342 time-exposures, revealing more than 1,500 galaxies that had never been seen before.
Extra lagniappe was added to the showmanship when trombonist Thomas Burge, who moonlighted for eight years as a WDAV weekend host until this past summer, came out to deliver the evening’s introductory remarks dressed up in a NASA spacesuit. Many if not most of the audience members with smartphones hadn’t acted on emails sent by Symphony earlier in the week urging them to download the Deep Field app, so that and logging in to the Blumenthal Performing Arts’ wi-fi network further ballooned the prefatory segment of the program. Adding to the fun, Warren-Green not only showed us what his silent cue would look like but also pantomimed what his reaction would be if we messed up.
Facing away from us until he gave us his cue, Warren-Green was the only musician onstage with a view of the screen. Synchronizing the ensemble with the film seemed to be a very complex task for him, looking down at his score and directing his players while sneaking peeks at the film. The film adds a whole new layer onto Whitacre’s composition. It was amazing how precise the synchronization appeared to be. Imprecision seemed permissible at the start, when Whitacre’s score merely proved how apt the use of a soft minimalist style was for simulating a journey through space. The power of the Deep Field film asserted itself as soon as it began, transforming Whitacre’s music into an unobtrusive film score. Yet the film ultimately proved to be a potent accompaniment for the film, for the entrance of the French horns was pivotal as the brass section and the first violins joined in the orchestral swell while the density of stars increased onscreen and colorful galaxies blossomed.
Whitacre had a bigger musical build to follow with snare drums and timpani, and the onset of our smartphones was yet to come, with the Charlotte Symphony Chorus standing by-behind the instrumentalists. Techies among our readers will be glad to hear that the Deep Field app was designed to play even when your smartphone is set on mute, thus preventing the interference of other alerts and the sounds you’ve chosen to signal email and message arrivals. No rude surprises there, and the differing reaction times to Warren-Green’s cue only enhanced the floating, white-noise, Star Trek flavor of the app’s sound. The video also had a surprise or two at this juncture, superimposing photos of people onto the galactic panorama. At first, the gallery of portraits evoked a choir for me, but perhaps because the filmmakers wished to avoid a sharp contrast with the black void of space, the black-and-white photos ultimately reminded me of the anteroom of the Holocaust Museum in DC, surely not the intended effect. More colorful, less ghostly images would help.
Three performances of Deep Field and The Planets are scheduled, an obvious indication that Symphony is aware of how hot this ticket is. Looking around the hall on Friday night, I didn’t see any patches of unsold seats, a testament to Charlotte’s undimmed affection for Holst’s astrological explorations. If you’re worried that repetition has dulled Warren-Green’s zest for the planetary suite, that concern was dispelled in the opening movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War,” where the musical director was as animated as I’ve seen him this season, prodding the orchestra to a full roar. It was interesting to see how Holst leaned as heavily on the celesta to depict outer space as Whitacre would lean on minimalism, using its distinctive timbre to sprinkle serenity on the “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” movement and to augment the Tinkerbell playfulness of the ensuing “Mercury, the Winged Messenger.”
“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” seemed to be the most British of the movements with Warren-Green wielding the baton, a countryman of the composer, and his account of “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” had as much gravitas as ever. The lugubrious opening built to an anguish tinged with timpani and tubular bells before twin harps emerged over a haze of double basses. “Uranus, the Magician” retained the Sorcerer’s Apprentice flavoring that I’d noted in previous Symphony renditions and, with the Symphony Chorus softly chiming in from offstage, “Neptune, the Mystic” had a heavenliness that can only be experienced in live performance.
While I might have pointed to the thinness cruelly exposed in the opening of Deep Field, I was at a loss to point out any flaws in Symphony’s presentation until a concertgoer sitting nearby piped up. He thought a larger screen in a darkened hall would have made Deep Field a more immersive experience. I’ve been informed that Symphony actually uses three different screens at Belk Theater, and the one deployed for Deep Field was larger than the one it uses when it presents an overhead view of guest pianists’ hands traversing the keyboard. But it wasn’t the largest screen in the arsenal, the one that hovers over Movie in Concert performances, such as the just-concluded Home Alone showings, where Symphony plays the film scores live and in-sync with the films. Maybe the midsize screen wasn’t the best choice for the Whitacre semi-premiere.