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The Houston Symphony Is Going Out of This World with The Cosmos

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The Houston Symphony is known for spectacular concerts, but this week, it's playing something out of this world. Literally.

The symphony will be playing Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World, while displaying a film featuring breathtaking images of far distant galaxies, nebulae and other astronomical wonders captured by cutting-edge instruments on and off Earth, including the Hubble Space Telescope, in a program titled The Cosmos - An HD Odyssey.

Blending music with images is a perfect melding of things that people can relate to, according to Aurelie Desmarais, chief of artistic planning for the symphony.

“It brings something scientific and aspirational to classical music. It’s a great foundation to deliver these images. One doesn’t overtake the other — they have a synergy,” said Desmarais. “You hear the music of Dvorak, but you’re seeing these images in a beautiful, unfolding kind of way because the pacing of the show is very complementary.”

To accomplish this feat, the symphony needed to recruit someone who had a knowledge of science and a skill for making films. It found its answer in Duncan Copp, whom the symphony first learned about from his production "In the Shadow of the Moon," which won the Audience Award in World Cinema at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

Copp’s experience as both an astrophysicist and a filmmaker served as the perfect partnership to bring this project to life. Through his years of doing many space-related films and documentaries, he knows many people like planetary scientists and has participated in related work, such as mapping Saturn.

The Cosmos is the third installment of this series that has looked at the worlds around us, and, fittingly, the performances have spent a lot of time circling our own Earth.

The symphony launched The Planets in 2010, a presentation that showed images of the planets in our solar system set to Gustav Holst’s The Planets. It took the show to Carnegie Hall and Florida and on a United Kingdom tour. The show was so successful, the symphony decided to premier The Earth in 2012, and now it's premiering The Cosmos.

One interesting aspect of the show is that a technician will operate the visual side of the performance to match the pacing of the conductor.

“The conductor, now, can interpret the music however he wants, and we have technology that can match it. He’s not tied to the timing of the screen,” says Desmarais. “The technician is following what the film is doing and how it relates to the music. He’s adding another layer of activity. Some conductors don’t want their interpretations to be constrained by particular time markers. This play, now with the technology that Duncan and our technicians have worked on, makes it possible. It can slow down or speed up, and it matches up beautifully.”

For an organization based in Space City,  symphony officials thought that a music series themed around the cosmos would be a great idea. But they knew it would be a daunting task.

Copp explains, “We worked harder to procure the footage for The Cosmos than the previous productions – but it’s been extremely rewarding. As always, I wanted to track down the highest-resolution imagery, which meant going back to the raw, unprocessed data, which in many cases are individual high-resolution frames. For example, to create the sun movies in the third movement, we worked with original data from the Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) satellite.”

The next steps get even harder.

“First, I’d research the date and time that the sun was particularly active – and had produced a giant flare, for example — something spectacular for us to include in the film. Next, with the help of my editors and the SDO team in Palo Alto, we’d pull over each individual frame that the spacecraft captured over a given period of time," says Copp. "Then we stitched these together, processed them and finally rendered the frames into a movie. We ended up accessing tens of thousands of frames to create the movies – the best of which made it into the production. We employed the same technique to make the time-lapse movies and the movies from the International Space Station.”

The hard work has paid off, though. Because of overwhelming popularity, the symphony has added extra days to the performance lineup. Run — don’t walk — to Jones Hall to enjoy both the arts and the sciences in a unique and interesting way!

The Houston Symphony will present The Cosmos - An HD Odyssey Thursday, May 26  through Sunday, May 29 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. Visit www.houstonsymphony.org or call  713-224-7575 for tickets.

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