Brian Mackey: Music, yes. Pictures, no thanks!

Brian Mackey

At last weekend’s season finale concert of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, the video projections of planets that accompanied Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” were an unwelcome distraction.

“Neither the orchestra nor Holst needed the help,” I wrote in a review of the concert.

When video or dance or anything else is an integral part of a work — present at the creation, let’s say — it can enhance the experience, like last year’s “Sun Rings” by the Kronos Quartet and the Springfield Choral Society at Sangamon Auditorium.

Non-sequitur media, on the other hand, is problematic. I understand the impulse to try new things to attract new people to concerts, but there’s a better way — a way that seeks to enlighten as well as to entertain.

I experienced one such concert three years ago, at one of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first “Beyond the Score” concerts.

The concert consisted of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Mark Elder.

“Is Music Dangerous?” the program asked. A narrator framed the mid-century Soviet Union while an actor read Shostakovich’s words and those of his contemporaries. Film clips showed what life was like under Stalin’s push toward industrialization.

The orchestra would play passages relevant to the narration or video.

One particularly eerie set of photos showed Stalin’s mastery of the totalitarian practice of “disappearing” people. Not only were his victims killed corporeally, but Stalin saw to it that photos were doctored to eliminate any evidence of their existence.

In the mid-1930s, while he was composing the Fourth Symphony, Shostakovich was denounced by the newspaper Pravda in a piece titled “Chaos Instead of Music.” He finished the Fourth but delayed its premiere for 25 years, until 1961.

All this served to illuminate the dark climate in which Shostakovich was working.

During intermission, the podiums were wheeled away and the orchestra was left alone on stage. The second half was all music — an uninterrupted performance.

I learned all that — and had a separate, unmediated experience with the music — in one concert.

Was there any such insight to be gained at Saturday’s performance of “The Planets?”

Some of the images were pretty — mysterious shots of planetary surfaces and distant reaches of the solar system.

But much of the video consisted of computer animations that looked like leftovers from a late-1990s sci-fi TV show (I’m looking at you, “Babylon 5”).

Holst was thinking of astrology — not astronomy — when he conceived “The Planets.”

“He had been an eclectic sampler of philosophies and mysticism since he was a young man, and this work came out of a brief flirtation with astrology,” music professor J. Michael Allsen wrote in the Illinois Symphony Orchestra’s program notes.

“Holst never followed this ‘science’ in a serious way. He seems to have used it only as a source of musical inspiration. In 1913, he wrote to a friend that ‘I only study things that suggest music to me. Recently the character of each planet has suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely.’

“As Holst suggested, the movements of ‘The Planets’ are based upon the personalities attributed to the seven astrological planets: Mars being ‘headstrong and forceful,’ Neptune ‘subtle and mysterious,’ and so forth,” Allsen wrote.

If your goal is to understand what motivated Holst to write one of the most enduring symphonic works of the 20th century, Allsen’s words were worth far more than the concert’s pictures.

Brian Mackey can be reached at (217) 747-9587 or brian.mackey@sj-r.com.