Symphony hopes 'Planets' aligns with audience tastes

The Charlotte Symphony hopes its new concert series will attract new listeners. But at the outset, it isn't shooting for the stars. It's aiming for the planets.

Make that "The Planets." The sonic showpiece by Gustav Holst will be the centerpiece when the orchestra launches its KnightSounds series Friday at the Knight Theater.

As the orchestra works to turn around years of financial troubles, it's trying to expand its audience and beef up its box-office revenue. Like groups across the country, many with their own money shortages, it's angling for people who are curious about music but put off by the typical concert format - with its etiquette built around sitting still, listening silently, clapping at the appropriate time and going home. So orchestras are experimenting.

"You can get outside the box of the traditional concert without dumbing it down in any way whatsoever," says the Charlotte Symphony's new music director, Christopher Warren-Green.

KnightSounds will be a combination of happy-hour mixer, multimedia event and open-ended night on the town.

Friday night, Discovery Place will set up a planetarium before the concert in the adjacent Bechtler Museum lobby. As that slips concertgoers into the celestial frame of mind, they can mingle over food and drink included in the ticket price. After the concert, members of the Charlotte Amateur Astronomers Club will have telescopes set up outside, aimed at Jupiter and other heavenly spectacles.

The night will revolve about the concert. But even there, more than Holst's music - which actually was inspired by the composer's liking for astrology, not astronomy - will be in store.

Each movement of Holst's suite will be accompanied by video montages built around transmissions from the Hubble Space Telescope and other NASA spacecraft. With computer animation fleshing out the images, the audience's voyage will include Mars' Mariner Valley, four times the depth of the Grand Canyon; Venus' desolate surface; Jupiter's and Uranus' moons; Saturn's rings; and Neptune's Great Dark Spot.

The video is tied together with narration between sections of Holst's musical journey. The narration will be delivered by WSOC-TV meteorologist Steve Udelson, who's an amateur astronomer himself.

When Udelson worked at a Tampa station, he did weekly features on what was on display in the sky. His wife, in cahoots with staff of Tampa's science center, surprised him with a telescope for his 35th birthday - presenting it to him on the roof of the center's IMAX dome.

"It's pretty addicting," Udelson says.

He inspects the moon's landscape, Saturn's rings, Jupiter's bands and even farther into space. When he sets it up outside his home, he says, neighbors usually notice, and it becomes a community event.

Udelson says he especially enjoys children's reactions when they see the rugged surface of the moon close-up for the first time. But to him, looking into space "puts in perspective how small we are in relation to that."

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