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The BSO And The Planets

4 min read

Gustav Holst headerGustav Holst


Friday night, The Music Center at Strathmore transformed into a space observatory. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop presented Gustav Holst’s The Planets. The concert also included a visual presentation from Lee Mills, photos of all eight planets in our solar system and guest speaker Dr. Mario Livio an astrophysicist and author of five books on science and mathematics including “The Accelerating Universe” and “The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, The World’s Most Astonishing Number;” his latest release “Brilliant Blunders” discusses major mistakes by five scientific geniuses.


The appearance of Dr. Mario Livio was a complete surprise and a great one! He’s also head of the Science Division at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute! They optimize the science of state-of-the-art observatory equipment in space which has provided a plethora of interesting data about our universe and what I would consider thee most extraordinary photography ever captured. He’s best known for authoring “The Golden Ratio” which the title I more familiarly relate to an outstanding cartoon I watched as a kid; Donald In Mathmagic Land. It’s an animated explanation of the golden ratio, proportions in the pentagram used to make the golden rectangle; which is pretty much the bases of all sound and aesthetics. The sum of the first two quantities equaling the third. There’s a very interesting section about the Pythagorean tonal chord structure through numbers and shapes with a cool Donald Duck jam session. Based off Dr. Mario Livio’s mastery of this number, I’d consider him just as much a musician as I would a mathematician or scientist. The Golden Ratio is definitely a book I’ll be checking out.

Dr. Mario Livio, Donald In Mathmagic Land
Dr. Mario Livio, Donald In Mathmagic Land

Marin Alsop gave us some insight about tonight’s composer, Gustav Holst. He’s not as much a household name as say Mozart or Beethoven but  his works have influenced the scores of some of our favorite films and composers, like the Star Wars Theme by John Williams. It’s structure is almost directly burrowed from Gustav’s Mars Movement. All of Gustav’s movements in The Planets are cinematic in a sense; space is the ultimate cinema. Stylistically, the movements represent the mythological figure the planet is named off more than it represents the actual planet but surprisingly enough the Greek description often suits the planet’s nature. For example, Mercury, the quickest moving planet, is named after the Greek God Mercury; a light footed winged messenger. There is some scientific resemblance.

hubble mars

It was a big orchestra with two harps, a tuba and all sorts of unique percussion. Dr Mario Livio explained that even though there was a visual presentation not to get caught up with the imagery, the main focus was the sound. There isn’t a song that this is more true than Mars! At the onset, the violins executed a unique technique; they played with the wooden side of their bow. It was like a pizzicato, it created suspense and dynamics. A very dissonant 5/3 time rhythm continued throughout the entire movement. Visually the sound described an intense discovery. Gustav Holst was a trombone player and it really shows in this song. Ominous horns boom audaciously, a counter balance between dissonance and consonance. It was very loud and very enjoyable.


My Favorite movement of all the planets had to be Mercury. It’s a swift moving tempo; some really elegant violin solos explode into a fantastic klangfarbenmelodie. Concert Master Johnath Carney lead this melody extremely well. There’s also some very unique percussion throughout the movement, bells that I believe distinctly represents the Messenger’s call; like a melodic Morse code.


An interesting movement is Jupiter. It has a very cinematic vaudevillian type sound. It’s as if Jupiter’s a new frontier, a gateway to growth, discovery and exploration. Marin Alsop’s conducting was exquisite, vaudevillian style suites have a wide range of sounds played at different intervals and speeds. Marin’s gestures were fluent and accurate. Very exciting!

The movement Saturn had the tempo of a clock; fitting since Saturn is the bringer of old age. It kind of reminded me of Pink Floyd’s “Time” and “The Great Gig In The Sky,” to tell you the truth. Also fitting is that Saturn’s extraordinary rings are like a timeline of sorts revealing Saturn’s past. There was an amazing photographic sequence that displayed a detailed layout of the rings. It was a palette of beautiful gradient tones, magnificent when accompanied with the Orchestra. Another surprise was in the final movement Neptune, The Baltimore Choral Arts Society sung from the upper tier; it added a nice dynamic and was a creative addition.

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Saturn’s Rings

This was a great program; very insightful and informative! I was left with a sense of awe and wonderment. Classical music fits so well when blended together with scientific themes; especially space. Space is like a vacuum and there isn’t any sound. If there were any perception of sound in space I would imagine it would be a stream of numbers representing tones. Gustav’s The Planets makes a great tonal resemblance of our sense of adventure. Here on Earth, it makes for an extraordinary journey bringing life to unknown desolate territories.