A single year was the connecting force for two works performed by the LSO one aestival night: Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 in D major, completed in 1902, and contemporary composer Andrew Norman’s A Trip to the Moon, inspired by a silent film released the same year. Besides this single trait, the entities on show throughout this evening at the Barbican bore no resemblance to each other – either in performance or in score.

<i>A Trip to the Moon</i> by Andrew Norman © Tim Whitby | Getty Images for the London Symphony Orchestra
A Trip to the Moon by Andrew Norman
© Tim Whitby | Getty Images for the London Symphony Orchestra

The UK première of A Trip to the Moon, a children’s opera based on the first science fiction film of the same name directed by Georges Méliès, set itself a plenitude of objectives. There are three singers in this piece: the characters of Georges, an astronomer, Eoa, a Moon creature, and the Queen of that luminous globe. The other characters are not vocal soloists. Actors playing Georges’ colleagues speak their lines. Eoa’s community of Moon people communicate chorally in their own language, ‘Moonish’ – a sung lexicon of only vowels which alter only slightly in pitch. These two terrains are intended, according to the programme notes, to present two entirely separate worlds: domains unrecognisable and fearsome to each other. Such a concept fills the classical music lover with anticipation of rigorous, almost absurd polyphony: something from The Rite of Spring or at the very least a work with tantamount ambition.

What is most surprising about Norman’s Trip to the Moon is its musical sameness. While visually the peoples couldn’t be more different – astronomers dressed in early 20th-century professional attire, Moon People clad in extraterrestrial silvery costumes – auditorily they are just several paces from each other rather than millions of light years. Motifs are distributed to different sections who each have their turn: only rarely do they come together to create a harmony or disarray. For the most part we hear sounds of pretty trinkets chiming; ditties repeated across flutes or soft brushstrokes of strings. Disruptive growls from brass represent fear. Even percussion instruments are either played in isolation or with very soft accompaniment.

Furthermore, when astronomer Georges meets Moon creature Eoa for the first time and attempts to teach her to speak human language, the underlying musical motifs are startlingly similar to those played in the background of the astronomers’ dialogue: arpeggios on glockenspiel that hardly contrast. When the scene is handed back to the astronomers whose feet are still on Earth, the playing may be taken over by the strings, but pace and instrumental texture remain almost pacifyingly continuous.

<i>A Trip to the Moon</i> by Andrew Norman © Tim Whitby | Getty Images for the London Symphony Orchestra
A Trip to the Moon by Andrew Norman
© Tim Whitby | Getty Images for the London Symphony Orchestra

So are these two communities really so different to each other? Only their manner of communication would have us believe it. The opera makes strange transitions into vigorous staccato music in the Moon people’s outbursts of joy. These are accompanied by clapping and somewhat resemble the style of Karl Jenkins’ choral composition Adiemus, all the while succumbing to a rhythmic pattern peculiarly reminiscent of the main theme from Mission Impossible. But this is the work’s only departure from its otherwise minimalist musical style. It portrays the difference between fear and ecstasy with adequate contours but doesn’t depict any other discrepancy.

The singers were here microphoned – a fact which makes one question whether this is opera after all. Sophia Burgos as Eoa created a silvery, mystical texture with an instrument that clearly manifested a progression from diffidence to unabashed confidence. As astrologer Georges, Robert Murray unleashed a thick vibrato, hurling his top register in jeopardy. Occasional mystical motifs in the score harked back to science fiction movies from the eighties and nineties, and the overall ensemble was far more resemblent of oratorio than of opera.

The texture underwent radical change when Sir Simon Rattle launched into Sibelius’ Second Symphony. And yet it seemed these instruments were still afloat like satellites in space – for rarely did the sections coalesce enough to meld into a whole. Stringent attacks on strings banished the treasurable delicate lines from this score. Across the gradient of f to p no points were allocated – allowing sections to swing from one extreme to another. Most unclean were the brass, whose performance was to music what disruptive overlapping babbling is to conversation. Rubato – a word that features in the second movement’s title – was absent in this pre-programmed structure of rhythm and tempo. There were ferocious strings and forceful pizzicati but they lived in isolation: severed from their woodwind and brass counterparts. Perhaps the often out-of-sync instrumental groups were the product of unabashed boldness: the kind that results when a rushed baking spree becomes a cake with thickly laden and uneven icing. Listeners pined for a soft tremolo. It didn’t come until the end of the last movement.

And so it was that this journey into the celestial unknown was never fully prepared to take off. On the contrary, it remained stuck on mundane Earth, the planet that perpetuates mistakes.