The Planets with the London Philharmonia

“Our” Train

It is now three and a half months since we arrived in England and at last I am losing the feeling that I am here only on holiday. Stop though! We have been up to London for the day twice, in the last week. We have spent a day in Tenterden, a beautiful Kentish town with a great shopping centre (not a mall, but good, old-fashioned strip shopping). We have been to Maidstone, Kent’s county town and we have visited Sissinghurst, one of the most beautiful gardens in our part of Kent. It is a holiday after all! Even the domestic chores such as visiting the Estate Agent and looking for carpets and beds, take on a different aspect and become quite pleasurable without the pressure that usually accompanies such chores.

The Strings

Our two latest trips to London were to the Science Museum, to experience the installation entitled “Universe of Sound”, developed by the London Philharmonia Orchestra along with  their conductor, Esa-PekkaSalonen. The orchestra was performing on film – a ‘virtual orchestra’ with 105 musicians, in fact. The Planets, composed by Gustav Holst formed the basis for what amounted to a virtual tour around the orchestra while it was in full flight. It was a fantastic experience, so good, in fact, that we went the second time just to catch up with the bits we had missed and to re-visit our favourite passages.

This was no ordinary film of an orchestra performing, however. The large exhibition space was divided into several generously-sized cubicles , each devoted to groups of related instruments, e.g. 1st and 2nd violins and viola, flutes and oboes, harps, clarinets and bassoons, celeste and organ, brass, timpani and percussion. In each cubical, were a number of screens, which were showing film of each section, with the musicians playing their respective instruments.

Timpani

See the pics if this sounds a little complicated! The appropriate music was provided on stands, allowing us to sit and follow the music in real time and the sound was jigged to allow us to hear only what the musicians would hear while playing. The idea was to wander through the installation and to spend time with each section of the orchestra, gaining some insight into the feeling of playing in such a charged atmosphere. The final station was a huge cone of screens, above head height, where the full weight of the complete orchestra thundered around one’s head. Here there was film of the conductor, and several other musicians, strutting their stuff, so to speak. It was fabulous.

The Conductor – Esa-PekkaSalonen

To add to the interest, there were two smaller screens with sub-titles and optional head-phones. One showed film of the conductor as he led the musicians, recording his thoughts about the music and its composer. The other was of the orchestra. Here were comments by and thoughts of the musicians themselves, while they were playing. These offered a personal and rarely experienced insight into the minds of the players, often humorous and surprisingly down-to-earth.

Woodwind

Finally, there were several screens set up to allow would-be conductors the experience of conducting the orchestra themselves. A grand experience for many. There were on-going tutorials on percussion and timpani, too, with brilliant young students and on film once again, the musicians, helping children of all ages, to play along and to make the right noises at the right time.

A member of the orchestra.

If you timed it right, as we did on our second visit, you were treated to the presence of one or more of the members of the orchestra coming in with his or her instrument, sitting in the appropriate area and playing live. We were fortunate and our visit coincided with that of one of the viola players who chatted about his work and even allowed me to “turn the page” for him. OMG, I haven’t been so focussed for years!

So – to clarify for those who are totally confused – all the while, Gustav Holst’s The Planet Suite was just playing on a permanent loop, surrounding us with magnificent sound, allowing us to duck and dive and catch up with it at any of the different stations.

The organ

The installation also featured a new companion piece to The Planets, by composer Joby Talbot, called World, Stars, Systems, Infinity.

I must say, the two days we attended this installation were real high-lights for us and illustrated just how lucky we are to live in such close proximity to events such as this. Not only that, it was free! All we were asked for was a donation to enter the museum, and there was not pressure there, either. If we had chosen not to give, for whatever reason, that would have been fine too.

Thank you London!

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