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A Space Music Concert and Space Art

Jim Plaxco and the Music Institute of Chicago Orchestra
Jim Plaxco on stage with the Music Institute of Chicago Orchestra

I had what for me was a rather singular experience Saturday September 8. That experience was participating in a classical music concert. My role was to provide narration for a piece of music titled Blast Off! and to speak briefly about the planets Jupiter and Mars as a way of introducing the musical pieces Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity and Mars, the Bringer of War – two of the seven planet songs that comprise the orchestral suite The Planets written by Gustav Holst and first performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1918. Why seven planets? Left out of the suite were our own Earth and the not yet discovered Pluto.

In addition to providing narration, I also provided the visuals used as a backdrop for the concert. The visuals consisted of a combination of my own astronomical art and images taken from various NASA web sites.

The concert was a free public event of the Music Institute of Chicago. Billed as a free concert for kids, the program opened with a musical instrument petting zoo which gave children the opportunity to handle a wide variety of musical instruments. As people filled the hall and awaited the start of the concert, a slide show of my martian imagery was displayed on the main screen. Some of the many pieces shown can be seen on my Mars Art Gallery web site.

The concert opened with a piano recital by 5-year-old MIC pianist Emily Bear whose performance was outstanding. Appropriately, her featured piece was Fly Me to the Moon. What was really impressive was that two of the songs she performed were her own compositions. Emily was then replaced on the stage by the 30 piece MIC Orchestra which launched into the theme song from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The conclusion of this song was my cue to take the stage.

My first task was to provide narration for the song Blast Off!. For those who love trivia, the musical score for Blast Off! was carried into space aboard the STS-92 Discovery mission to the International Space Station. Narrating Blast Off! was a challenge for two reasons. First, I had to take cues from the conductor Benjamin Loeb for when to speak – a totally new experience for me. Second, I had to “act” the words. Fortunately the previous night’s rehearsals really helped with both. I must say that I found twenty lines of dialog spoken on cue with feeling far more difficult to deliver than a two hour class I taught at the Adler Planetarium.

Following the end of Blast Off!, I gave the audience a brief overview of the planet Jupiter and its Galilean moons and introduced Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. Another short lecture about Mars and the importance of exploring the red planet led to the introduction of Mars, the Bringer of War – one of my favorite musical pieces. A number of years ago I had the opportunity to see Emerson, Lake, and Powell (not Palmer) perform their version of this piece in concert – a totally killer interpretation that remains one of my most memorable concert experiences.

For me the entire event was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and the MIC people were a real pleasure to work with. It was also a great piece of community service work by the Music Institute of Chicago. Not only were they providing children with the opportunity to handle instruments and attend a concert, attendees also got to learn a little about space exploration and see some space art.

Ad Astra, Jim

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