Hollywood producers think every popular movie deserves a sequel – and the Houston Symphony agrees.
Following the success of the orchestra’s multimedia performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets in 2010, it has created another film with music. This time, the symphony will be visiting a planet not included in Holst’s suite – Earth.
“The Adams piece allows me to take everyone into orbit,” said filmmaker Duncan Copp, who created The Planets and now Orbit. “It’s a very forceful, driving music, about four minutes long. What I wanted to do was to create something around a shuttle launch, so we can take our voyage into orbit.”
The second work, Also Sprach Zarathustra, was made famous by Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or, at least, the first two minutes of it was – but in Orbit, Houston Symphony audiences will get every note of the expansive half-hour tone poem.
“Once we’re in orbit,” Copp said, “then we can start our grand journey around the Earth. And that’s where the Strauss music is used so eloquently.” In this part of the film, NASA images – taken from space shuttles, the International Space Station and from unmanned satellites – take the viewer on a trip around our planet from a height of about 250 miles.
Both The Planets and Orbit are part of a slowly growing trend toward audio-visual orchestra concerts, symphony CEO Mark Hanson said.
“It’s a wonderful development,” he said, “for orchestras to be investing in concert experiences that many people haven’t traditionally associated with our organizations. Any time an orchestra like the Houston Symphony invests in expanding the concert experience, that’s a healthy development.”
The Chicago Symphony has created an ambitious series of multimedia concerts, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is broadcasting concerts in cinemas throughout North America, and some orchestras have installed big screens in their concert halls.
In Jones Hall, screens to the left and right of the stage are used to simulcast concerts – zooming in on details of the performance – for all of the Houston Symphony’s pops programs and for half a dozen classical concerts per season.
And with The Planets, the Houston Symphony learned how popular and successful this sort of thing can be. The orchestra has toured the production to Carnegie Hall, Florida and the United Kingdom.
Hanson points out that other orchestras have rented The Planets. It’s been shown in concerts by orchestras in Cleveland; Fort Worth; Denver; Greenville, S.C.; and Sydney, Australia – and it will soon be seen in Seattle; Lexington, Ky.; and Bergen, Norway.
Is multimedia the breakthrough orchestras have been looking for to attract new audiences – as supertitles were for opera 25 years ago? Audiences have shown little resistance to visual elements incorporated into the Houston Symphony’s concerts, Hanson said. Yet other factors complicate the question.
For one thing, high-quality multimedia productions are much more expensive than projected titles at an opera. Hanson says Orbit cost the Houston Symphony a whopping $620,000 to make. However, the orchestra was able to raise $450,000 for the project and hopes to recoup the rest in ticket sales.
And concerts with film projections can alter the dynamic of the musical performance. On top of everything else a conductor has to worry about on the podium is a new element: keeping the music synchronized with what’s happening on the screen.
“For The Planets,” Copp recalled, “(symphony music director) Hans Graf did a fine job of keeping the performance in synch with my images. However, we now have a new trick up our sleeves. We have some software that allows us to edit on the fly, while the performance is happening.”
This technology will be used for the first time in Orbit. With it, the conductor is freed from the obligation to line up the music with the film. Instead, the film can be adjusted by the projectionist to line up with the conductor.
As techniques are refined, and orchestras learn from experience and from each other, multimedia concerts surely will become more common. As far as the Houston Symphony is concerned, it’s an idea whose time has come.
“There are some other projects over the horizon,” Copp said. “I’ll do a third Odyssey with the Houston Symphony – making a trilogy – which we hope to premiere in 2014. But I’m going to keep that under my hat because I want it to be a surprise.”
He’s also working on a multimedia project based on the Day of the Dead festival, which he hopes will involve both the Houston Symphony and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
For now, the London-based filmmaker is focused on Friday’s premiere of Orbit.
“The Houston Symphony has the most outstanding group of people to make sure it all comes off well,” Copp said. “And there’s nothing better than sitting in the audience and getting an immediate response. When I make a TV documentary, I may watch it at home alone – but with this, I’ll be in a hall with a few thousand other people.”
© Colin Eatock 2012.