A powerful voice in classical music, American conductor Marin Alsop, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, challenged audiences at the Royal Festival to engage with contemporary classical music in an imaginative way. Presenting Komarov’s Fall, a world première by Brett Dean, alongside the Doctor Atomic Symphony by John Adams and The Planets by Gustav Holst, all three pieces dared the audience to explore the depths of human curiosity and its traumatic repercussions.

Commissioned by Sir Simon Rattle as a companion piece to The Planets, Dean’s Komarov’s Fall was inspired by Soviet Cosmonaut Vladimir Mikhailovich Komarov, the first person to die in space. In this UK première, the London Philharmonic embodied both the limitless possibilities and sinister loneliness of space. All together, the players produced a shower of sound while simultaneously crafting individual moments, like waving foil to emulate a meteor shower or producing mutated woodwind sounds to reflect the sombre, yet dreamlike quality of space.

In John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony, the most dramatic and tense passages from his third opera, Doctor Atomic, shine through. An opera that re-tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb, this piece is entrenched in the tensions between insatiable human curiosity and inevitable destruction. Menacing throughout, the violinists played relentlessly while woodwinds hammered out their notes, producing a strangely catchy tune that burst with anxiety and excitement. Chock-full of curiosities, the LPO—both as a group and as individuals—personified the various characters in Adams’ opera, shedding light on the humanism of the story right up to the final countdown.

In keeping with the rest of the programme, Holst’s The Planets depicted a range of human personality traits, not planetary ones. From the Stravinsky-esque five-in-one rhythms in Mars, The Bringer of War to the lush, romantic colours of Venus, The Bringer of Peace, the flitting, high-energy themes in Mercury, The Winged Messenger to the schizoprenic nature of Uranus, The Magician, Alsop and her players typified it all. And with the London Philharmonic Choir’s mystic performance in the final movement, Neptune, The Mystic, the music felt distant and weightless, as if it were drifting away into the galaxy’s abyss.

A tremendous performance, Alsop and the London Philharmonic Orchestra transformed what initially seemed like strange and unfamiliar music into a compelling vision of the complexities of human nature.