National Philharmonic performs ‘The Planets’ with music set to stunning NASA images

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews National Philharmonic's 'The Planets' (Part 1)

The National Philharmonic is partnering with NASA for a pair of out-of-this-world concerts.

The Planets” comes to Strathmore this Sunday, and Capital One Hall on Feb. 13.

“There’s a massive screen above the stage where the imagery will be projected and the orchestra underneath,” Music Director Piotr Gajewski told WTOP. “It’s a very large orchestra, maybe 90, almost 100 musicians because there are some very special instruments: harps, celesta, lots of different percussion, English horn, contrabassoon.”

The program opens with Claude Debussy’s “La Mer” set to images of planet Earth.

“‘La Mer’ translates to the sea,” Gajewski said. “When you look at the Earth, especially from space, what’s striking is the blue of the oceans … it was composed about 1905. It’s an impressionistic piece. You hear sounds of the ocean. It’s very easy with music to evoke waves, birds or the sun rising over the ocean from soft calmness to great emotion.”

After intermission, images of other planets are set to Gustav Holst’s “The Planets, Op. 32.”

“He composed (the piece) almost 100 years ago,” Gajewski said. “It’s one movement to present each planet. He was almost guided more by the astrology than the astronomy of it. He created one movement for each planet, not Pluto, which back then wasn’t known and since then has had a checkered history with regard to its status, and not Earth.”

The first planet is Mercury, the swift messenger of communication.

“Mercury is a lot of fleeting music because Mercury is the winged messenger, so a lot of fast flutes, woodwinds, strings and so forth,” Gajewski said.

The second is Venus, the famous goddess of love and beauty.

“Venus is softer imagery and woodwinds and such,” Gajewski said.

The third movement covers Mars, the god of war and aggression.

“Mars is the bringer of war, so it’s a very warlike theme with a pounding (beat),” Gajewski said. “That rhythm goes straight through that movement for six or seven minutes.”

Next up is Jupiter, the guardian of the gods with growth and prosperity.

“Jupiter is probably the best well-known music from ‘The Planets,'” Gajewski said. “Jupiter is the bringer of jollity, so it’s kind of dance-like music with great horn tunes and such.”

Next is the ringed planet Saturn, the god of harvest with focus and nobility.

“Saturn is the bringer of old age,” Gajewski said. “It’s slow with low tones, basses, tired sounding.”

The penultimate planet is Uranus, the god of ingenuity and discoveries.

“Uranus is the magician,” Gajewski said. “Orchestras are really good at magical sounds with percussion things and celesta and those kinds of instruments.”

Finally is Neptune, the god of our collective consciousness, dreams and fantasies.

“Finally Neptune, the mystic, also very much harps and celesta percussion,” Gajewski said. “The very first, I believe in the history of music, fade out. There’s a hidden women’s chorus backstage. They sing this space-sounding music, steady and repeating, getting further and further away, accomplished by a boor backstage being slowly shut.”

All of these movements are set to stunning images by NASA Goddard.

“It gives us a great excuse to share the stunning images that NASA has and creates,” Gajewski said. “I found out they have like seven animators on staff. Who knew? So they were tasked with creating the imagery. They have lots of images to choose from, and videos, and they have the ability to animate stuff, so they get very creative with this.”

Out in the lobby, children can enjoy educational materials.

“We have something called Science on the Sphere, a 68-inch sphere in which moving images are projected,” Gajewski said. “Also, a preconcert lecture from a real astronaut, so that’s really cool for kids and everyone young at heart.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews National Philharmonic's 'The Planets' (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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