Houston Symphony is taking some inspiration from one of the city's most recognizable initiatives — our involvement in NASA's space exploration programs — for its world premiere of Composer-In-Residence Jimmy López Bellido's Symphony No. 2, Ad Astra, on Dec. 5, 7 and 8 at Jones Hall. Commissioned by the Houston Symphony, Ad Astra is the culmination of López's third and final year as composer-in-residence.
"When I [originally] sat down with the Houston Symphony, we discussed what kind of shape the residency would take, so I asked what makes Houstonians proud. One aspect was the Johnson Space Center and the contributions Houston as a city has made for space exploration. I felt it was necessary to highlight that. Ad Astra is dedicated to the people at NASA, and it's an homage to people’s desire to explore the stars," López said.
Musically, the composition originated from the Morse Code rhythm for the words "ad astra" (Latin for "to the stars"), part of a message aboard the Voyager's famous Golden Records as a greeting to any space-faring aliens that might find them someday. From there, the music expands to reference other missions and their mark in history. The symphony consists of five movements, each with a different source of inspiration: Voyager, Apollo, Hubble, Challenger, and Revelation. The final movement is López' imaginative interpretation of what might happen if Voyager's message is ever found by distant lifeforms.
"Morse Code is very rhythmical. I took the rhythm of 'ad astra' as the trigger for the whole symphony. When you have that, it has a little cell from which the whole symphony sprouts. I like it that way because then you can have a very basic building block, and from that you can build a whole edifice. That’s what a symphony is to me. This isn’t a symphony of individual movements; there’s an overarching structure to it - an architecture. The movements talk to each other," he said.
Voyager sets the tone, with the message containing greetings and information about Earth for any space entities that might find them. It's the first time we hear the theme that carries throughout the whole piece. Apollo brings in nontraditional instruments to help evoke the soundscape of lunar exploration, like the glass harmonica.
"When I was writing Apollo, there was a particular timbre that I couldn’t find in the traditional orchestra, and I wanted it to be eerie because it’s an otherworldly idea. It evokes the barren landscape of the moon for me," he said.
He used the same idea when composing Hubble, where he implored a wind machine.
"It emulates the sound of wind. When Hubble was sent into space, it wasn’t working properly. People were freaking out, then they found out what the issue was, and they were able to fix it. The wind machine makes a reference to the beginnings: insecure and a little bumpy. It has a mechanical sound to it like a machine about to start but doesn’t," López said.
That also opens up the idea that space exploration hasn't always been successful. Our efforts have also been a part of some of our country's most shocking moments, like in the Challenger movement.
"Challenger uses a siren alarm. I use it at a specific spot that I felt was necessary. It ramps up the narrative and tension to a different level. It feels really surprising," López said. He added, "I didn’t want to necessarily portray the tragedy, instead I wanted to portray the journey. There was a lot of expectations with Challenger, and there was a lot of excitement and joy, and when the tragedy happened, people didn’t understand what was going on. It brings the element of alarm."
The fifth movement follows the disaster of Challenger and begins in a somber, meditative mood that transitions into the return of the "ad astra" rhythm where the whole composition began. In it, there is in fact a life form that received the message of Voyager and returned the message.
"A civilization finds the message, decodes it and sends it back to us…the whole premise is we connect and perhaps we will meet not just one civilization but several. It creates a new age," López said. "It’s at the core of all space exploration. There’s curiosity in humans. Are we alone in the universe? A lot of our quests and curiosity try to answer that."
To create the entire piece, he visited with Johnson Space Center to get firsthand experience with the lives of astronauts and the people who make NASA function.
"We got access that is unprecedented, I think. One of the highlights was when we went to mission control. I thought as I stood behind the glass wall, 'This is as close as I am going to mission control,' but they opened the door, and we went down there. We met the people who work there, and we met the flight director, as he was giving instructions to the people on the ISS," López said.
"It was really humbling to see how extraordinary the work is they do every day. I went to a massive pool where they have a replica of parts of the ISS where astronauts practice underwater in a buoyancy lab before a mission. I had the chance to talk to the astronauts, and they explained the mechanics. I got lots of inspiration, and it was really a source of joy for me to be so close to that mission," he added.
It's easy to get lost in the fanfare of the world premiere, but the second half of the programming offers its own treat as well. Violin virtuoso Gil Shaham joins for Brahms' classic Violin Concerto. Known for his flawless technique, Shaham interprets this beautiful and emotionally powerful masterpiece - widely considered one of the great works of the violin repertoire.
Houston Symphony also kicks it up a notch with the Saturday night performance during an "Out of This World" party. Ticket holders are invited to sip celestial inspired cocktails, dance the night away to DJ tracks under a luminous moon globe, and mingle with Houston Symphony musicians.
It's a fitting party to capstone López' work as composer-in-residence, but he's not done leaving his mark both in the city and in music. In May, the chorus and orchestra will perform his oratorio Dreamers, which was premiered by conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra in March.
And as for his future, he seems quite hopeful.
He said, "I have commissions lined up. There is no lack of work, thankfully. For the time being, I choose to focus on creating. That will keep me busy for a couple of years. I’m always open to other positions. If I have the chance to do it again, it will be wonderful to apply all the lessons I learned during my stay in Houston."
Shaham Plays Brahms + López World Premiere takes place December 5 and 7 at 8 p.m. and December 8 at 2:30 p.m at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For information or tickets, call 713-244-7575 or visit houstonsymphony.org. Tickets range $24 to $109.