PSO takes audiences on a stellar journey

The PSO’s latest production, The Planets ­— An HD Odyssey, features classical music pieces inspired by the planets of the solar system with accompanying images from NASA. (credit: Courtesy of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) The PSO’s latest production, The Planets ­— An HD Odyssey, features classical music pieces inspired by the planets of the solar system with accompanying images from NASA. (credit: Courtesy of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO)performed The Planets – An HD Odyssey last weekend, which combined the wonders of the galaxy with high-resolution photos from space and the vivacity of a live orchestra into a prime example of the combination of science and arts that Carnegie Mellon prizes.

The Planets – An HD Odyssey consists of seven movements — one movement for each of the planets, excluding Earth. The title associated with each planet described the tone of the piece. For example, the first movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War,” had a militaristic feel with war-like drum rolls and loud, thunderous swells. The music made NASA’s high-definition photographs, which were projected over the stage, especially impressive and breathtaking. Conversely, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” presented the audience with a more soothing, mellifluous melody to accompany the crystal-clear photographs of the mostly white, gaseous planet.

“Mercury, the Winged Messenger” had a more flighty melody to accompany the science-fiction-like, vibrant photographs of the planet. “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” impressive with its powerful and boisterous medly that accompanied images portraying the sheer enormity of the planet, especially in comparison to the moons that orbit it, as well as the powerful and boisterous melody that accompanied the images. “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” aroused chuckles from the audience for the name and had darker, foreboding tones.

Though it came at the tail end of the performance, “Uranus, the Magician” was bottom-to-none one of the most entertaining pieces. A true asset to the compilation of music and photographs, the melody was whimsical and entertaining. The magnificent photos of the massive blue planet, both from the perspective of the sun and from the rear, were fundamentally awesome.

“Neptune, the Mystic,” the final piece, was also the only piece accompanied by the women of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. The soft sound of the women’s voices in conjunction with the tender vibrations of the violins, added to the mystical feeling already inspired by the photos of the planet.

The Planets, composed by Gustav Holst, originally premiered in London in 1918. As his ideas for the piece formulated, Holst said to a friend, “As a rule, I only study things that suggest music to me…. Then recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely.”

Holst discouraged the connection between his pieces and their mythological namesakes. “If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it is used in a broad sense,” Holst wrote for the 1918 performance.

Before the performance of The Planets – An HD Odyssey, conductor Manfred Honeck led the orchestra in a five-part piece entitled The Elements. According to the PSO’s website, each movement was “inspired by the city’s environmental history and the natural elements of fire, earth, water, air, and metal.”

Elements was prefaced by a video of the composers explaining their pieces, which not only contextualized the feelings conveyed by the music and brought specific images of Pittsburgh to mind, but also gave a face to the often-mysterious minds behind the compositions.

Duquesne professor Patrick Burke, who composed the first piece, “Flourish,” described his piece as “blending the classical tradition, the visceral immediacy of rock, the social awareness of folk, and the meditative quality of gamelan music to form a cohesive, organic whole.” The piece focused on the elements of water and earth and was named “with confidence that my home city will continue to thrive, adapting itself to changing economic, social, and cultural climate,” Burke said.

Burke and his wife were expecting their first child during the premiere. This piece “is my prayer for the baby’s safe arrival and a healthy, fulfilling childhood in Pittsburgh.”

The pieces, “Awake,” by Bomi Jang; “Eliza Furnace,” by Mathew Rosenblum; and “Flood Lines,” by Amy Williams, were meditations on the decline of Pittsburgh’s urban forests, the Eliza Furnace Historic Site in Vintondale, Pa., and Pittsburgh’s Great St. Patrick’s Day Flood in 1936, respectively. Each piece was moving on its own and full of zealous, loud melodies. “As the music progresses, it focuses on building up an intense energy and gradually moves to the finale with various timbres of the instruments and lively rhythmic patterns in the chaotic texture,” Jang said of “Awake.”

Reza Vali, who has been a composition professor at the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon since 1988, composed the last of the five pieces, entitled “Ravân,” which is Persian for “flowing.” According to Vali, “‘Ravân’ is designed as a scherzo with a fast first section alluding to the turbulent white waters of the Youghiogheny River, a calmer middle section, like a trio, and a recapitulation of the fast section.”