Louisville Orchestra will present “The Planets” this weekend, Feb. 23-24. | Courtesy of Louisville Orchestra

How far is Mars?

And what would it look like if we could be there, maybe 40 million miles away?

Is the “red planet” really red?

And if we could glide through the colorful rings of Saturn, what would we see?

Audiences will find answers to these mysteries — and more — in concerts Friday and Saturday in Whitney Hall when the Louisville Orchestra performs the Gustav Holst work “The Planets,” illustrated with high-definition photography from NASA space voyages to the planets of our solar system.

It’s a unique kind of presentation — the music of the orchestra, with photography from space projected on a screen above the symphony.

And not a new idea, to combine sound with sight. Though it is generally done as sight, with sound added.

Filmmakers have ever endeavored to adorn their visual presentations with music that enhances the story being told on screen — from hiring a hot-fingered piano player to play exciting music in theaters as the heroine of a silent movie is tied to the tracks, with a train rumbling ever closer, to poignant strings in the background as lovers kiss.

Except this is the opposite: Here we begin with a heralded piece of symphonic music, then find the pictorial images to help tell the story.

Duncan Copp | Courtesy of Duncan Copp

That was the challenge for British filmmaker Duncan Copp, who was commissioned by the Houston Symphony to create a multimedia presentation that would … well, that would knock the socks off concertgoers.

“We wanted to put the music and the imagery together to create something greater than the sum of the parts — an immersive experience,” says Copp, whose films have delved deep into the mysteries of science and space.

He’s also a lifelong classical music fan who remembers a hi-fi recording of “The Planets” carrying him away into the wonders of space.

“I love science, I love planetary geology and planetary exploration … and I love music,” says Copp. “So this was a dream come true for me to be able to work on this project. You could say the planets aligned for me.”

“The Planets” consists of seven movements, each about a planet — Mercury through Neptune. Pluto hadn’t been discovered when Holst penned the piece, and he didn’t do one for Earth. The movements are beautifully picturesque.

Copp says there was already a show for “The Planets,” which used archival space photography shot through telescopes from earth.

The spark for a new production came from NASA astronauts who knew about a tremendous trove of new images taken by unmanned NASA space ships traveling to farthest reaches of our solar system.

Houston is the home of the Johnson Space Center — “mission control” for NASA. And the home training base for American astronauts.

“Several of the astronauts came along to a Houston Symphony presentation of ‘The Planets’ and afterward met the symphony director Hans Graf, who was maestro at the time,” says Copp. “They said: ‘You do realize that there’s some really incredible new imagery of the planets taken by NASA spacecraft. They’re really great resolution in high definition.’

“That got the symphony thinking about updating their production, and that’s when they got into contact with me — I think because I’d done quite a lot of documentary filmmaking.”

And probably because the symphony sensed Copp’s feel for space science and classical music.

A scene from “The Planets” | Courtesy of Louisville Orchestra

Soon, as Copp tells it, “thousands and thousands” of ultra-high-resolution photos came pouring into to Copp’s London studio, where he and editor David Fairhead began a monthslong sifting process. Not simply finding the most dramatic photos, but also the ones that best expressed the music.

“If I went out running,” says Copp, “I would put Holst on. I would just listen to it. Get used to the rhythm, get used to the music — and it became a familiar friend.

“Then, I spent many months going through the archive. NASA very kindly gave me access to a number of scientists working throughout the states at various universities. I could call on them to help me find the really incredible images they took out there.”

Copp says he needed to assimilate all the images before beginning the sifting process, “thinking about how do I use them? How do we edit with them?”

Then the music — which isn’t so modern. Composer Gustav Holst penned “The Planets” in 1914.

That’s just a bit over a century ago, but only at the very dawn of manned flight. Holst lived in the era of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. An age of biplanes and Jennys — with manned space travel somewhere far in the future. Jules Verne was writing “science fiction” about a voyage “From the Earth to the Moon.”

What Holst had to work with was, in fact, more astrology than astronomy. The composer’s notions of distant planets followed themes conceived by ancient Greeks and Romans observing the night skies and attaching human characterizations to heavenly bodies.

Thus Mars, the planet, is named for Mars, the god of war. The familiar “Red Planet.” Venus, by contrast, is blue and white in the sky, and always depicted as a planet of love. A place of peace and serenity.

“Of course, as a planet, Venus is a hellish place,” says Copp. “It’s got a surface temperature that’s twice as hot as a conventional oven. About 470 Celsius. It’s got a crushing atmosphere. It’s the same as being a mile under the ocean — and it rains sulfuric acid. The place is not pretty. It’s not beautiful. But Holst portrays the music in a very beautiful, evocative picture.”

Like the image of Venus, the goddess.

“The goddess of love,” Copp says.

Which the planet is definitely not.

But on other planets, the music and the reality are more compatible.

Copp found Mars particularly interesting because the Mars Rover was landed on the surface of that planet and went about shooting scads of close-up photos of interesting surface features.

But Saturn is his favorite.

“Saturn” | Courtesy of Louisville Orchestra

“It’s interesting, because ‘Saturn’ as a piece of music was probably one of the least well-known of ‘The Planets’ pieces,” says Copp. “Jupiter’s story is well-known, Mars is very well-known, with its association with lots of science-fiction music, ‘Star Wars,’ and what have you. But Saturn not so much.

“But I grew to love Saturn because our imagery is just so spectacular,” Copp continues. “You have this beautiful planet circled by a mesmerizing set of rings, and it’s huge entourage of moons. You really have a fantastic play of celestial movement. There was a particular mission called the Cassini-Huygens Mission, which spent a number of years at Saturn — orbiting the planet, constantly gathering the fantastic motions of rings, planet, moons. That kind of imagery really became hypnotic for David and I. And we became more attached to the music.”

Old Jupe — the “big pizza pie in the sky” — is another colorful palette for the filmmaker.

“The whole surface of that planet that we see is gaseous,” Copp explains. “It’s as complex as a Picasso painting — a continuing climatic dynamic of clouds and storms an colors and spots and bands. It’s slightly surreal, but it’s beautiful to look at.”

Thomas Wilkins | Courtesy of Louisville Orchestra

Thomas Wilkins makes a guest appearance to conduct the “The Planets” with the Louisville Orchestra. Wilkins is director of the Omaha Symphony and the principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl.

For this show, he’ll be the man at the stick steering the craft.

But like manned space flights of modern times, Wilkins gets help from “mission control.” That’s production engineer Jill Krynicki Dutcher, who is stationed at a control panel that uses computer technology to keep the pictures on course with the music.

If the conductor prefers to speed up a piece, or slow it down, the visual show adapts.

Copp feels the production is a natural, because of the sensual and dramatic nature of “The Planets.” Plus the wonder evoked by the photography of planets millions of miles away, visible only as tiny dots on a clear night.

Sound and sight pair well.

“Music is integral to the narrative of a film,” says Copp. “Sometimes it’s subliminal, but it’s always there and always a salient element. With ‘The Planets,’ I knew the score quite well. I’d listened to ‘The Planets’ as a boy. It was one of the first classical pieces my parents introduced me to.”

The trick, says the filmmaker, was finding the photographic images that meld with the music. And finding a pace to make film and music come off the pages of the score together.

“It’s having a feel of which pictures will compliment the score, the movements and the feel of the music,” says Copp. “There’s no script writing. There’s really just finding your way.”

“The Planets: An HD Odyssey” will be held Friday, Feb. 23, at 11 a.m., and Saturday, Feb. 24, at 8 p.m. at the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall. Tickets start at $32.


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