Planets align musically

j.d. sumner@albanyherald.com
Earth as seen in the Wetherbee Planetarium, is pictured from space.

j.d. sumner@albanyherald.com Earth as seen in the Wetherbee Planetarium, is pictured from space.

ALBANY -- The planets appear to be lined up for a stellar symphony concert on Saturday.

The Albany Symphony Orchestra will take the stage at 7:30 p.m. Saturday to the music of native Albany composer Wallingford Riegger before blasting off after intermission for a multimedia presentation of Gustav Holst's "The Planets," with the movements narrated by NASA astronaut Norman Thagard.

It's the third concert in a series celebrating arts and attractions in Albany, with this "Voyage of Discovery: The Planets" focusing on the Wetherbee Planetarium at Thronateeska Heritage Center.

"It's a continuation of our series of highlighting the other arts organizations in our town," symphony Music Director and Conductor Claire Fox Hillard said last week. "I'm amazed at the number of people who don't know Albany has a planetarium."

The Wetherbee is a world-class facility. It boasts a Spitz "SciDome" high-definition projection system -- with 3 million pixels tripling the resolution of standard projection system -- beneath a 40-foot diameter dome with digital 5.1 surround sound. When it was installed in late 2008, it was the first of its kind in the world. The second "SciDome" system went to Yale University.

Tommy Gregors, executive director of Thronateeska, said he was excited for his organization to be part of the symphony series. Tucked away at the east dead-end of Roosevelt Avenue, the museum, depot and planetarium is a too-often overlooked source of information and entertainment.

"It's a great opportunity," Gregors said last week. "We thought it was a great fit with 'The Planets.'"

THE EXPOSURE THE symphony is giving to attractions like his, the RiverQuarium at its season-opening concert in September and the Albany Museum of Art in October is invaluable, he said.

"On a regular basis I talk to any number of people in our community, from newcomers to lifetime residents, who say they've never been to the planetarium before," Gregors said. "The other response I get is, 'I didn't know it was down there.'"

Gregors said he also runs into people who visited the old planetarium years ago with their children or as part of a school group who haven't given it another look. Some people's first exposure to the Thronateeska complex is when its facilities are rented for a wedding or other social event.

"It's a challenge," he said. "A lot of it is people going out of town (for entertainment) and not visiting the venues they have in their own town.

"We do have a lot of cultural attractions and things to do. There is a lot to do in Albany. It's hard to get around and see it all if you're really engaged in what we have available here."

Thagard may help that Saturday when he makes special appearances at two of the planetarium shows -- the ones at 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.

In 1989, Thagard was flight engineer for Shuttle mission STS-30 aboard the Atlantis, which deployed the Magellan radar mapper on a polar orbit around Venus. The radar mapped virtually all of the Venusian surface, something light-gathering cameras were incapable of accomplishing because of the planet's thick cloud cover. He retired in 2009 as an associate dean and professor of electrical engineering at the Florida State University College of Engineering in Tallahassee, where he also has served as executive director of the Challenger Learning Center with its space station/mission control simulators, IMAX Theater and planetarium.

SATURDAY NIGHT, THAGARD will be on stage with Hillard and the symphony to narrate an introduction to each of the movements of Holst's "The Planets, Op 32." The movements focus on "Mars: The Bringer of War," "Venus: The Bringer of Peace," "Mercury: The Winged Messenger," "Jupiter: The Bringer of Jolity," "Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age," "Uranus: The Magician" and "Neptune: The Mystic."

Pluto, which was considered a planet from the 1930s until its recent reclassification as planetoid, had not been discovered when Holst composed "The Planets," and he did not include a movement for Earth.

Hillard said he hopes the subject matter -- the planets -- also will entice some who haven't attended a symphony performance to go, especially youngsters and students. Special pricing Saturday allows a student with a valid ID to buy a ticket for $8, and children 12 years old and younger can attend for free. Thronateeska members get a free ticket with each one purchased. Adult tickets range in price from $35 to $38.

In addition to the introductions of the movements by Thagard, Hillard said the performance will be a multimedia one as the previous two subscription concerts were. In this case, NASA footage of each planet will be projected during its respective movement.

But instead of the traditional situation where the conductor has to time the music according to the images, the images will follow the music.

"It makes good sense because the music is first," Hillard said. "The video fits with the music, as opposed to the music fitting with the film.

"We play the music and someone sits and operates the PowerPoint. When the appropriate time comes in the music, he goes to the next segment of the video."

HILLARD SAID HE plans to use the video equipment to project images of Riegger in the opening portion of the program. The symphony will play three short pieces by Riegger -- "Dance Rhythms, Op. 58," "Festival Overture, Op. 68" and "New Dance, Op. 18."

While Riegger is well known in classical music circles, but isn't a household name. In 1960, he was featured in Time magazine in an article titled "Pioneer From Georgia." In 1976, the U.S. Bicentennial of American Music Council designated 200 places in the nation that were considered important to the country's musical culture. The council designated Albany as one of those locations because Riegger was born here in 1885. He died in 1961.

Hillard said "Dance Rhythms," one of Riegger's most famous compositions, debuted on the same stage the symphony will perform on Saturday. The Cincinnati Symphony performed the composition at the Albany Municipal Auditorium on May 4, 1955.

"There are a few folks in town who I think remember seeing him," Hillard said. "I think when he was here for that performance (in 1955), he went to First Presbyterian and found his baptismal record."

He described the Riegger works that the symphony will perform as "likable music. It's very rhythmic music."

Riegger referred to his music as unltramodernistic. While he was born in Albany, he grew up in Indianapolis and New York, where be was a member of the first graduating class of Juliard in 1907. He studied in Germany before returning to the States in 1917. when a career conducting fell through, he turned to composing and in New York in the 1920s he came to be regarded as one of the "American Five," a circle of composers that also included John J. Becker, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles. Compositionally and culturally, the quintet advocated American music independent of European traditions.

"He's a composer of note. He's in the history books," Hillard said of Riegger. "Not every community can say they've had a classical composer from their town.

"He is one of the prides of the community."