Playing through the cosmos at the ISO 

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Whether you're a science enthusiast or not, there's a good chance that when you learned about our solar system's planets in school, you got excited about it. Whether it's in fascination of Jupiter's huge red eye (which is a massive ongoing storm), Saturn's beautiful rings, or how far away and cold Pluto is (poor Pluto, the non-planet planet), students of all ages seem to be extraordinarily excited about them. One of the most well known being composer Gustav Holst, who wrote a symphony based on them. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will be performing Holst's The Planets on the second weekend of the Cosmos series, under the direction of Jun Märkl.

Granted, Holst was thinking of the planets in more of their astrological characters, rather than astronomical, but that hasn't stopped anyone else from thinking of the pictures they saw in their textbooks while listening to the work, which Holst wrote between 1914 and 1916. That hasn't stopped anyone from thinking about the planets as bodies in the sky, rather than zodiac signs.


"It's inherent, really," says Indianapolis native and astronaut Dr. David Wolf, who is the Children's Museum of Indianapolis' Scientist-in-Residence and will be speaking before The Planets concert. "Throughout millennia, humans have contemplated what's beyond our home planet. What's is it like to leave Earth? Can we live on another planet? What's out there? These are the deepest questions that humans, in their advanced intellectual capabilities contemplate. These questions grip us at our core, and they make us different from any other species on earth."

Dr. David Wolf, who is the Children's Museum of Indianapolis' Scientist-in-Residence
  • Dr. David Wolf, who is the Children's Museum of Indianapolis' Scientist-in-Residence

Wolf, a medical doctor and electrical engineer who has been to space four times, will be presenting his unique experience with space and the planets in a special pre-concert talk. He is (obviously) enthusiastic about space from an astronomical standpoint and from a musical standpoint.

"I've listened to symphonies in space — I've listened to Holst's The Planets in space, actually," says Wolf. "I love classical music and always have. Every evening, growing up, before I went to bed, I was listening to classical music. I know what a sensory experience it is listening to music. I also know what the sensory experience of space is like. There's nothing like space. There's nothing like spaceflight. It's a whole new array of sensory inputs! I plan to augment that whole sensory experience of music with the wonderful Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra by communicating visually and through words, the sensory experience of space. I'm really looking forward to it; I love this work of Holst".

Dr. Wolf isn't the only person who enjoys The Planets. Since its premiere in late 1920, it has enjoyed widespread success, which Holst was surprised by, and slightly upset about. He penned in a letter to his friend, "I realize the truth of 'Woe to you when all men speak well of you.'" He didn't expect his composition to gain such traction.

click to enlarge Jun Märkl will conduct
  • Jun Märkl will conduct


The seven movement work begins with "Mars, the Bringer of War," which starts quietly, yet firm with the strings playing col legno (with the wood of their bows), a march-like rhythm, despite the work being in the un-march like time signature of 5/4. The brass then enters ominously, slowly but surely, and the work erupts sounding like an epic call to battle with all sections of the orchestra going full force. It comes to an end after chords come clashing together like enemies on a battlefield. The following movement is as peaceful as the previous is fierce. "Venus, the Bringer of Peace," begins with an ascending solo horn line, and the movement has a supernal quality aided by the harp and glockenspiel. (Editor's note: Chantal has played almost every single piece in the series as a orchestral musician.)

"Mercury, the Winged Messenger" follows, and is the shortest of all the movements with differing rhythms piling upon each other. "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" follows, an ebullient movement if there ever was one. "Saturn, Bringer of Old Age" comes next and almost sounds slightly gaunt in the entrance, and the movement has a solemn heaviness about it. "Uranus, the Magician" dashes away that weight with an loud, intense brass entrance, and then the sounds of spells and tricks cast are thrown throughout the movement. The celestial suite concludes with "Neptune, the Mystic," with its distinct incorporeal themes and chords, and the piece ends fading away in to... well, space. Where's Pluto, the planet that became an un-planet? Holst wrote the work about 15 years before it was discovered.

Along with this iconic work, the program will include Paul Hindemith's Die Harmonie der Welt Symphony, which stems from his opera of the same name. The opera is about the life of Johannes Kepler, a German mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer. Also on the program is "O du holder Abendstein" (Song to the Evening Star) from Richard Wagner's opera Tannhauser, with Wolfgang Brendel as soloist.

Dare I say it? The program will be ... out of this world.

The Planets
Jan 29, 8 p.m. and Jan 30, 7 p.m.
Hilbert Circle Theater, 45 Monument Cir

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