Video detracts from Holst evening at Wolf Trap

July 29, 2012

The received wisdom about Wolf Trap is that straight classical programs don’t work in this open-air venue. As a result, the National Symphony Orchestra uses various hooks to lure in crowds — pops, Broadway, film, to name just a few. On Friday evening, the hook was a film by Duncan Copp designed as a video accompaniment to “The Planets” by Gustav Holst — a montage of slow-moving NASA images with some animations thrown in.

Certainly no music is more appropriate for a cinematic tribute than Holst’s seven-movement suite, composed when film was still in its infancy and which has served as the template for 90 percent of movie music up to the present day. But the title notwithstanding, the piece is a theosophist exploration of the planets’ affects on humanity, not the bodies themselves. The movement subtitles make this perfectly clear: “Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity,” “Neptune, the Mystic,” “Venus, Bringer of Peace,” and so on. Thus, the visual focus on craters and other topography was misplaced.

And without context, it was often unclear what we were looking at. Some of the images might just as well have been a close-up of an amoeba, a lichen or a hair-ball. And the most stirring scenes (planets juxtaposed against one another) were clearly animations, which made the whole enterprise suspect. Finally, while the images were in some senses a feast for the eyes, most were pretty generic, while each of the seven movements conveyed very specific characters and emotional temperatures. Incongruities abounded.

Sadly, this misfire on several levels could have been redeemed by the first half of the program, which featured Ferde Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite.” A clever cinematographer could have had a field day with this selection, which is pure American kitsch. But the screen was dark for that, and all we could do was sit there and wait for the Holst. Conductor Emil de Cou does this stuff well, and the NSO players deal with the heat and humidity with great professionalism. As for the crowd, it was smaller than the one that showed up the following night for Beethoven’s Ninth, with no hooks or visuals whatsoever.

An image from Gustav Holst's “The Planets.” (Courtesy of Wolf Trap)

An image from Gustav Holst's “The Planets.” (Courtesy of Wolf Trap)
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