The Missoula Symphony Orchestra is opening its season with a wide-screen grandeur.
The movie-themed "Starstruck" program is built around English composer Gustav Holst's epic "The Planets." The opening section, "Mars, Bringer of War," is widely seen as the inspiration for a section of John Williams's score for "Star Wars," the imposing "Imperial March" theme.
Holst's suite cycles through all of the planets in our solar system except for Earth. (No Pluto, either.)
Holst's writing, however, is "astrological, not astronomical," said Darko Butorac, the symphony's artistic director. The composer imagined moods for each body: Venus, "the bringer of peace," is as serene as "Mars" was threatening. Mercury, "the winged messenger," intimates a feeling of flight. "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity," has an air of levity, while often sounding as massive as "Mars."
The way he wrote music to express character traits "almost became a future blueprint for Hollywood scores," Butorac said. Williams was inspired by it, and Hans Zimmer was accused of cribbing from it for "Gladiator."
To conjure all these different personalities, Holst reached into the many different tonal colors as he could find.
In the 1910s when Holst was writing "The Planets," Butorac said "composers were really experimenting with what sounds an orchestra can make, what sounds can people pull off."
"The Planets," for instance, calls for double the number of woodwinds, more than half as many brass players, two harps, organ, celesta, and a large percussion section. In all, the symphony will use 95 musicians for the work. The power of opening section is "like a beast awakening," Butorac said.
"The Planets" is more often used to close a symphony's season, he said. Instead, it will signal the beginning of an ambitious year for the orchestra. In the past several years, they've added large-scale pieces from the symphonic repertoire to their calendar. Last season's closer was Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." In October, the symphony and chorale are taking the challenge of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and in April, Gustav Mahler's sprawling Symphony No. 2.
The movie theme is threaded through the other pieces this weekend, with two other selections that reflect the Golden Age of Hollywood, Butorac said.
The concert opens with American composer Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975). To indicate the range of his career, he wrote the music for Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" in 1941, while his final score was saxophone-laden music for Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" in 1976.
He's most famous for his long association with Alfred Hitchcock. The MSO has chosen a suite culled from his sometimes sinister and often sweeping score for the director's 1958 thriller, "Vertigo."
As you'd expect from the creator of the immortal "Psycho" motif, Herrmann uses stabbing, dissonant gestures to generate a sense of unease and disorientation that mirrors the onscreen action. Elsewhere, he conjures a contrasting sense of grandeur and mystery.
Butorac said Herrmann was a master of heightening the qualities of a film — in this case, obsession.
His "Vertigo" score "created this intense energy that almost spins around its axis in a very obsessive manner," Butorac said.
After the Herrmann suite, the symphony will be joined by guest soloist Mayuko Kamio, a Japanese violin virtuoso who studied at Juilliard School.
Kamio won the 2007 International Tchaikovsky Competition, has played with orchestras around the world, and her albums have been released on Sony Classical. Kamio performs on a loaned instrument with a heavy pedigree: a 1727 Stradivarius that belonged to Joseph Joachim, the great violinist from the 1800s.
Here in Missoula, she'll take the spotlight on Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violin Concerto in D Major.
Korngold (1897-1957), a Jewish composer who was born in Austria-Hungary, traveled frequently to work in the United States. After Nazism spread into Austria, he moved permanently to the U.S. in 1938.
He's credited with pioneering the use of the symphony in film. His work for "Anthony Adverse" (1936) and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938) won Oscars.
The famous violinist Jascha Heifetz brought his Violin Concerto piece to fame and it has stayed in the repertoire since, Butorac said. While it sits firmly in the classical tradition, Korngold does quote his movie music. When you listen to it, you can hear ideas that set standards for what film scores should sound like, Butorac said. For instance, Korngold's use of celesta, a keyboard instrument with a "silvery, twinkly" sound resembles the scores to the Harry Potter films some 75 years later.
"Several times in the piece, both soft ones and loud ones, you can see how John Williams was inspired by this," he said.