Lots of orchestras incorporate projected images of planets when they perform Holst’s The Planets, but not every orchestra’s hometown has jet propulsion labs and nearby rocket scientists as collaborators. So when I heard the Houston Symphony Orchestra was coming to Carnegie Hall on Thursday (Jan. 28) to play The Planets on January 28—with a new HD film of images from recent NASA space missions—I decided to head down to the box office to see what seats might be available for $20 or less. There was a balcony seat available for $18.50 with a “slight obstructed view” (as described by the ticket-seller). I bought the ticket, but then on the day before the concert, an extra ticket (orchestra row G, value $84) also fell in my lap. You’ll notice in the ticket photo (below the jump) that not one but two tickets are pictured. So I had my $18.50 seat up in the center balcony, and another downstairs. I made up my mind to sit downstairs for the first half of the concert, and trek upstairs after intermission.
In the concert’s first half, Hans Graf led the Houston Symphony in Stravinsky’s whimsical, Debussy-like 15-minute Scherzo fantastique, with its devilishly exposed passages for winds and unforgiving pyrotechnics in the violin section. They also played Dutilleux’s Timbres, espace, mouvement, ou La Nuit étoilée, by French composer Henri Dutilleux (born 1916). The Dutilleux has hardly a melody in it but has a fascinating orchestration—cellos and basses but no violins or violas, a solo for oboe d’amore, celeste—that created some otherworldly passages, such as a barely audible section for cellos that almost made you feel like you were intruding on some deeply personal meditation or religious ceremony. From Row G, we could easily discern the orchestra’s precise, pointillistic approach to the Stravinsky and Dutilleux. However, I must point out that much as I love Carnegie Hall’s acoustics, sitting so close it was not possible to hear the orchestra as a unit; individual sonorities popped out.
After intermission, I headed upstairs. As anyone knows who’s been up there, Carnegie Hall’s balcony is steeply raked, with stair risers that are nearly a foot high—walking up and down them is better than Stairmaster. Because of the rake, there are no heads to block the view, and you sit close to the hall’s beautiful gold-and-white ceiling, looking down upon the stage at an angle that allows you to see the precise layout not only of the musicians but also of the hall itself; it was from up here that I realized the hall was sold out.
Unlike at the 3,800-seat Metropolitan Opera, where you feel separated from the action if you’re up in Family Circle (despite good acoustics), at Carnegie you feel intimately connected to the stage even from balcony Row C (my spot). There were lots of students and twentysomethings near me, and it appeared that most of them came to see the HD-enhanced presentation of The Planets. There was a screen at the back of the stage, and as the lights came down I discovered what the “slight obstructed view” was: the microphone that always hangs down center stage during Carnegie concerts was right in the middle of the screen. From where I sat, it looked like a tiny pinpoint and didn’t make a huge difference. As film from the seven planets named in Holst’s piece were shown, the orchestra reveled in the bombastic “Mars” passages, with brass at full throttle, as well as in Holst’s more ethereal sections, such as the final wispy “Neptune” phrases, with women’s voices coming from offstage. The orchestra sounded like one unit, in a way that it didn’t downstairs in the first half. Some of the images—Mars, Venus, Saturn’s moons, the rings around Uranus—were stunning, especially Venus’s brilliant, tropical-looking colors and the almost translucent rings around Uranus. As one NASA talking head pointed out in a pre-concert film, Holst was composing music that had less to do with the actual planets and more to do with ideas about the gods and goddesses after which the planets were named. So this was less a film like Koyaanisqatsi—where the film images and Philip Glass’s music make one statement and were composed together—than two beautiful experiences happening at the same time.
As far as the sound from Carnegie’s balcony: it’s one of the best in the world. But it’s great downstairs, too. No matter how you slice it, $18.50 is an amazing price to hear an A-level symphony orchestra in this hall.
Images: (top) Picture of tickets for the event. (bottom) Image of Neptune courtesy of NASA and the Houston Symphony.