After more than 30 orchestras passed through the Concertgebouw during Robeco SummerNights, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra ended the series with an “out-of-this-world” multimedia experience. Martyn Brabbins took the audience on a journey through our solar system in The Planets: An HD Odyssey, designed to fit the composition by Gustav Holst. Completely sold-out, three generations of family members, young couples and tourists formed a refreshingly diverse audience, resulting in a welcoming laidback atmosphere. With the orchestra firing on all cylinders, if this programme didn’t stimulate young minds, I don’t know what would.

Martyn Brabbins © Sasha Gusov
Martyn Brabbins
© Sasha Gusov

As an appetizer, Brabbins led the orchestra through a compilation derived from movements of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack. Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra felt like a generic choice, especially since the video presented with it simply had nothing to do with Kubrick’s masterpiece. Brass opened the monumental “Sunrise” with radiance, joined by the explosive percussion jolting the audience into alertness. In the face of the intense playing, this first film, a poorly edited concoction of youtube clips, turned out to distract too much from the music. Rather than an exciting coming together of the two media, it resulted in a disservice to the marvellous orchestra.

Quite surprisingly without interruption, Brabbins continued the compilation with a strictly paced excerpt from Ligeti’s Atmosphères, bringing it to life with extraordinary precision, although its brevity did not allow for enough build up to reach Ligeti’s chilling creepiness. The conductor then switched to the cheerful moods of Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube that Kubrick repurposed for the cinematic ballet between spaceships in 2001. 

Andre Kuipers, the affable Dutch astronaut célèbre, followed with a galvanising powerpoint presentation of his record breaking 193 days at the International Space Station. With personal video anecdotes and a great sense of humour, he left his audience utterly charmed. This crowd-pleasing account captured the attention of the children, many on the edge of their seats, clearly inspiring wonder about the universe’s big questions.

In 2006 the incompleteness of Gustav Holst’s magnum opus The Planets ended after scientists demoted Pluto to the status of dwarf planet. Brabbins led the Rotterdam Philharmonic on this musical journey accompanied by a film produced by documentarian Duncan Copp from pictures and CGI videos made by NASA. Holst intended the seven parts to reflect the astrological characterization of the planets, not their Roman astronomical identity, which explains the alternative epithets to their names and the absence of Earth.

While images of the Red Planet passed along the screen, Brabbins immediately grabbed the audience attention with the bellicose excitement from the suspenseful snare drums and glowing brass in the first movement “Mars, The Bringer of War”. Later, The concertmaster Marieke Blankestijn dazzled with the highly melodic violin solo during “Venus, Bringer of Peace”. As the engaging visual trip progressed, the celesta brought a whimsical lightness to “Mercury, the Winged Messenger”.

The orchestra was deeply moving in the emotional highlight of the evening with the overwhelming joy Brabbins generated from “Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity”. Fiery strings in these epic passages swept us off our feet. Afterwards, elegance saturated the soothing calm in “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age”. The wind section, especially the bassoons, contributed to the cheeky passages in “Uranus, the Magician” that brought to mind the youthful energy of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

In the final movement, “Neptune the Mystic”, under choir conductor Edward Caswell’s leadership, the Ladies of the Groot Omroepkoor effectuated a superbly crisp clarity off-stage, behind the open door atop the stairs, adding a sense of exalted mystery to this last planet.

As orchestras are trying to reach new audiences through film-in-concerts such as the highly popular Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean productions, the Rotterdam Philharmonic gambled with this risky, but breathtaking and compelling experience through space that beyond entertainment, captivated and inspired the audience.