The word ‘planet’ means wanderer,” the narrator says, explaining the captivating, wandering harmonies of Gustav Holst’s popular orchestral piece The Planets. “To the ancient world, the planets were the stars that changed position, that wandered from one place to another. In The Planets, the music wanders from harmony to harmony.”
This connection, bringing together science, cultural history and music, is only one of many insights that emerge in the course of the “Beyond the Score” program being presented July 19-20 at the Colorado Music Festival. The first half of the performance will be a multimedia exploration of The Planets, the composer and his times, and the second half an uninterrupted performance of the entire score.
If The Planets is familiar to you — as it is to many concertgoers — you are still likely to learn something new with this imaginative and illuminating program. And if you have never heard it before, this may be the best way to experience Holst’s mysterious and captivating score for the first time.
“Beyond the Score” originated several years ago at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) as a way of enhancing the concert experience.
In the words of Martha Gilmer, the CSO vice president for planning and audience development, “We started with a desire to have a roughly one-hour exploration of a single piece of music, in a somewhat theatrical format that would be akin to a live documentary.”
The program has kept that format, but it really took form when Gilmer teamed up with composer Gerard McBurney, now the program’s creative director. On top of many years of experience teaching music, McBurney has experience in theater, radio programming and documentary film — all of which is called upon in the final product.
“He spends three to four months on a piece he already knew well,” Gilmer says, “listening, reading, researching, imagining and coming up often with a new look at a piece that we all think we know very well.”
The wish to explain classical music has a long history, including music appreciation classes, radio programs and concert presentations. The “Beyond the Score” series is in the great tradition of Leonard Bernstein, whose legendary Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic are still available on DVD.
Similar programs have come and gone over the years, including the “Jazz for Young People” concerts presented by Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center. But few have been as successful as “Beyond the Score.”
The audience doubled from the first concert to the second, and the series is now regularly sold out. With the CSO providing scripts, multimedia files and technical support, more than 20 licenses are granted each year for other orchestras to offer the programs. In addition to CMF, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Seattle Symphony each present three concerts a year, and others, from Milwaukee to Memphis, have presented individual programs.
Critics have been generous with praise. A Chicago Sun-Times critic wrote “The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has a winner in ‘Beyond the Score.’” The Chicago Tribune added, “Seldom has enlightenment proved so entertaining.”
Gilmer says that is all part to the program’s success.
“The richness of the visual and literary and theatrical elements means that people recognize things from their own experience and then hear how the music is connected to it,” Gilmer says. “It makes you feel smarter, and when you come to [another] concert, you say, ‘I’ll bet this has a story, too.’” Of course, there are always those who prefer to simply experience the music without trying to understand its mysteries. They may ask, why do we need more explanation when the music should be enough?
The best answer came from Pierre Boulez, an uncompromising modernist composer and the Helen Regenstein conductor emeritus of the CSO. Introducing one of the early programs, Boulez said, “I have heard, or read, many times, this famous sentence: ‘The music speaks for itself.’ “But a work of art is never born out of nothing. It is composed, written, painted at a certain time, within a certain society, at a certain moment in history. Of course the music speaks for itself. But it speaks more forcefully, more in depth, if you know about the language of the composer, what he wants to express, and how he wants to express it.”
That, in a nutshell, is the program’s premise. And thanks to the CMF, you can judge for yourself. In Boulder, I’m betting on audiences going for understanding.