Science is science and art is art, and never the twain shall meet. At least that’s the perception of many people – that the two are not antithetical, they occupy two different spheres.
That is certainly not the case with “Cosmic Designs,” a two-day multimedia event at The Music Center of Strathmore that features two identical concerts by the National Philharmonic (NP) accompanied by images from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Scientific Visualization Studio.
Musically, the event will consist of two nature-related musical works: Claude Debussy’s “La Mer” (The Sea), three symphonic sketches, and Gustav Holst’s majestic seven-movement orchestral suite, “The Planets.”
“I’ve wanted to perform ‘The Planets’ for some time and knew of performances where imagery had been used,” said Piotr Gajewski, the NP’s music director and conductor who is conducting the concerts. “Then we stumbled into the idea of also including the Earth — which does not make an appearance in the Holst work — by performing the Debussy. Of course, much of the earth’s surface is oceans and seas.”
NASA’s presentations will include original images and videos of the solar system and the earth’s seas as well as exhibits about the agency’s latest discoveries and missions, such as to Mars and Jupiter. The images will shift with the music. During “La Mer,” audiences will see visualizations from NASA’s Earth-observing fleet of satellites and “gain insights into how the ocean, atmosphere, and land work together as a system,” said Wade Sisler, an executive producer at Goddard. “During ‘The Planets,’ they will see awe-inspiring images from famous astronomical satellites, including the Hubble Space Telescope.” This is the first time, he added, NASA programs will focus on the ocean and sea as well as the planets. Audience members will also be able to engage in conversations with NASA scientists, meet a NASA astronaut and visit a pop-up NASA gift shop.
Despite the rich visual offerings and educational programming, keeping the music front and center was the goal, according to Gajewski. “Along the way, we had many discussions on how best to accomplish this, and I think we’ve struck a good balance,” he said. “Most of the events and scientist interaction will happen before, after and at intermission of the concert. During the concert itself, the music will definitely dominate, with the fantastic imagery put together by NASA providing a great enhancement.”
Helping achieve that goal will be the free pre-concert lectures by Victoria Gau, the NP’s associate conductor and director of education. “My lectures will give a bit of information about the composers, the historical/cultural context of the pieces, and what to listen for in the music,” said Gau. “I’ll also touch on how the movement titles in both ‘La Mer’ and ‘The Planets’ are reflected in the music.”
In addition, NASA CHATS will be targeted to young people before each performance, allowing them to meet NASA scientists and ask questions they may have about the solar system and the agency’s latest missions and discoveries.
The multimedia event, to take place Saturday, Jan. 27, and Sunday, Jan. 28, at The Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, marks the world premiere of “Cosmic Designs.” But forming partnerships isn’t new to the orchestra. “National Philharmonic collaborates with numerous partners, and we are always looking to expand partnerships — reaching out into the community is a major part of our mission,” said Gajewski.
Some of the larger partners include the Montgomery County Public Schools and, of course, Strathmore itself. But the Philharmonic also partners with private enterprises. “Lockheed Martin, Ingleside at King Farm and Potter Violins are good examples,” he pointed out. Lockheed Martin, an American global aerospace, defense, security and advanced technologies company, is a major sponsor of “Cosmic Designs.”
The NP/NASA collaboration came about because of people with a foot in both the musical and scientific camps, so to speak. “The Philharmonic has a dear couple who are long-time patrons and with whom I speak frequently at our concerts who happen to work at NASA Goddard,” said Leanne Ferfolia, NP’s president. “I began having serious conversations with them about how unique it would be for National Philharmonic to do Holst’s ‘The Planets’ and collaborate with NASA. They were extremely enthusiastic about the prospect and wanted to make some introductions.” From the first meeting, the idea was “an instant fit for both organizations,” Ferfolia added.
It’s also serendipitous that 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the debut performance of “The Planets.” In tandem, NASA wanted to look back at all of Goddard’s space exploration imagery and discoveries over the past 100 years and work with that concept,” she said.
Even with an exciting concept in mind and strong cooperation between the two organizations, the concerts were about a year in the planning. “We were looking for innovative ways to share the fruits of the space program and to help people understand its inner workings, said Sisler. “The images and stills are a collection of materials over time, not just recent images.”
“It was an “astonishing feat” to sift through so much imagery and select a set that would depict each movement of ‘The Planets’ in “near-seamless and flawless fashion,” Sisler added. “The video production team was tremendous with its vision after hearing our passion for the impact of the music. We believe the multimedia presentation is a beautiful way to marry music, images and the journey to these planets.”
NASA’s Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, is one of 10 such centers across the United States. Nearly half of NASA’s missions research Earth itself. The agency’s work helps scientists determine the origins of life, preserve life on Earth and understand the place of humans in the universe.
Bringing in an additional artistic component, Strathmore’s “Color the Music” exhibit will showcase artwork created by young people inspired by the musical pieces in the concert. The display will hang in the Strathmore lobby throughout the weekend.
Lest, again, the commonalities between art — in this case, music — and science are disputed, Sisler said, “It’s in my DNA” and that of everyone at NASA to share the results of the space program. At the same time, he estimates he has listened to “La Mer” “about a thousand times.”
“Cosmic Designs” performances start at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28, at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Ticket prices range from $25 to $82, free for ages 7 to 17 accompanied by an adult). Victoria Gau’s lectures will start at 6:45 p.m. Jan. 27 and 1:45 p.m. Jan. 28, and NASA CHATS will take place from 7:15 to 7:45 p.m. Jan. 27. and 2:15 to 2:45 Jan. 28. There is free admission to the lectures and chats. For tickets and information, visit www.nationalphilharmonic.org or call 301-581-5100. Learn more about this concert here.