At "The Planets — An HD Odyssey," the Seattle Symphony's Ludovic Morlot will transport fans of Gustav Holst's masterwork out to the solar system, with help from high-definition NASA images, at Benaroya Hall July 12-14, 2012. Also on the program: Ligeti's "Atmosphères" and Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra."

Share story

Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot took his first trip into outer space just a year ago — at the Sydney Opera House.

That’s where he guest-conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in a performance of “The Planets — An HD Odyssey,” a multimedia package that matches high-definition NASA images of the solar system with a live performance of Gustav Holst’s symphonic masterpiece “The Planets.”

“I’ve actually experienced being at the heart of it,” Morlot said in an interview last month, “which is really tremendously moving, I must say.”

Morlot will lead the Seattle Symphony and the Women of the Seattle Symphony Chorale through a performance of “The Planets — An HD Odyssey” this week. The event has proved so popular that an extra concert night was added in late May. It will be performed July 12, 13 and 14.

The concept behind “The Planets — An HD Odyssey” originated with the Houston Symphony, where music director Hans Graf had the idea of showing NASA footage of the solar system in time to Holst’s music. He notes, in an online promotional video about the project, that he and the symphony invited “the people who live in our neighborhood — the astronauts” to come hear the orchestra’s first crack at it.

While they were powerfully impressed by the music, they gently broke it to Graf after the show that the images he was using were “a little bit old and dusty.”

“You should know,” they said, “that there’s great new material out there — high definition.”

Graf and the symphony took that and ran with it, turning to British filmmaker Duncan Copp, director of the 2007 documentary about the Apollo missions, “In the Shadow of the Moon,” to produce and direct a new HD film to accompany the live music.

Using “a whole new suite of data” that NASA provided, Copp and film editor David Fairhead went to work, taking a different editing and visual approach with each movement of Holst’s work so that every planet would have its own individual feel.

While the visuals include some computer-generated animation (for instance, of NASA’s rendition of the stages by which the Rovers entered the Martian atmosphere), no manipulation of the real pictures’ color or other specifics was involved.

“The Planets” will be preceded by a brief introduction featuring NASA researchers. The aim, Copp says, was to bring in “the human perspective of taking part in bringing these images back — the thoughts and feelings of those scientists who’ve had the privilege and the dedication to work on these missions.”

Copp adds, “When Holst was alive, all he had to go on were rather grainy telescope images. So that’s why a lot of his music was actually based on mythology. Today we have a much better visual and scientific understanding of these worlds, and we can draw on that for inspiration.”

Morlot, describing his experience in Sydney, says he wrestled at first with the whole concept of keeping pace with the images in his musical interpretation. It didn’t take him long to decide that the music should have the upper hand. While he does try coordinate pivotal moments — a chord change with an image change, for instance — he feels that music and visuals don’t have to match precisely to work their magic.

Morlot works with the video technician much as he would with a guest soloist: “You have a meeting before the rehearsal, to consult on simple technical questions having to do with cues, chapter titles and tempos. … The more you do it with the same person, the more the melding of music and visuals coheres.”

In an email interview, the Houston Symphony’s technician, Kristin Johnson, who worked with Morlot in Sydney, notes, “When the film was designed, the goal was that each conductor could simply conduct his or her version of ‘The Planets’ and not be locked into a specific set of musical choices.”

Image and music are synchronized at the start of each movement. “When we run out of film or run out of music,” Johnson explains, “we fade to black. Each conductor can make choices in lining up the music and the film in different manners.”

Johnson has taken part in more than 70 run-throughs, rehearsals and performances, and she can think of only four specific moments in all those hours of music when music and image didn’t line up well.

“The credit truly goes to Duncan Copp,” she says, “and each conductor’s sensitivity.”

Only Holst’s piece will get the HD-video treatment at the concert. But another piece on the program, György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères,” will evoke vivid visual memories for many film fans. That’s because the 1961 orchestral work is what you hear in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” as astronaut Dave Bowman takes his trip “beyond the infinite” in the final leg of the film.

“It was my first real encounter with the voice of Ligeti,” Morlot says of Kubrick’s film. Still, he feels there’s no need for HD visuals to augment Ligeti’s piece in concert: “It’s enough of a visual spectacle just watching the players.”

The other work on the program is Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” also indelibly linked with the Kubrick film. (Its first few measures accompany the movie’s opening credits.)

Originally, the Symphony was only going to perform an excerpt from the Strauss piece. But an opportunity for some extra rehearsal time led Morlot to program the entire tone poem. British composer Colin Matthews’ “Pluto,” originally part of the bill, has been postponed until a later date. (Morlot jokes that Pluto’s recent demotion from full-fledged planet to “dwarf planet” was a factor).

Morlot sees nothing but a benefit in movies leading audiences to new music: “I think it’s fabulous. Any way to experience the repertoire is a welcome one. I wish they would play it in hotel elevators.”

As for introducing visuals to traditional concert settings, he feels it works “if you don’t do it systematically.” In some cases, he suggests, it actually enhances the piece, letting you hear it with a different pair of ears. It also has the potential to bring in younger video-oriented audiences.

“The Planets,” he argues, is a strong piece. But the visuals, he feels, make it even stronger, helping listeners lose themselves in the space that the music evokes.

Did Morlot have dreams of space travel when he was a boy?

“I think we all had those dreams,” he says. “I’m actually having them more now than when I was a kid.”

He points out that it’s a dream coming closer to true for future generations, as members of the public — those who can afford the ticket, anyway — embark on space travel.

Still, it’s not so much the travel aspect that appeals to him as “the feeling of solitude in the middle of an immense void. That must be amazing.”

Music, he feels, can achieve a similar effect, offering what he calls “a poetic image of facing the whole universe.”

The Sydney Morning Herald, reviewing Morlot’s interpretation of “The Planets” last year, echoed those sentiments, calling the musical performance “rhythmically taut, colorful and subtly evocative of worlds and possibilities beyond our own.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com