Music News & Reviews

A symphony for the planets melds music, astronomy for out-of-this-world experience

José Francisco Salgado, astronomer and visual artist, uses a combination of photography, video and historic documents, such as drawings by Galileo, to illustrate each of the planets for the Symphony’s performance of “The Planets.”
José Francisco Salgado, astronomer and visual artist, uses a combination of photography, video and historic documents, such as drawings by Galileo, to illustrate each of the planets for the Symphony’s performance of “The Planets.” Courtesy photo

It’s Jose Francisco Salgado’s job to make sure the next Wichita Symphony Orchestra performance is an out-of-this-world experience.

Salgado, who has a doctorate in astronomy and is a graphic artist, provides the visuals to accompany a performance of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” in two concerts this weekend at Century II.

Through the seven movements – one for each planet, sans Earth – Salgado projects corresponding imagery of the planets, obtained through NASA and the European Space Agency.

“He has a great gift for the drama of matching classical music with these images,” Wichita Symphony conductor and musical director Daniel Hege said. “You might say he photo-choreographs the images to the music.”

In an interview from his office in the Chicago suburb of Willow Springs, Ill., Salgado says his work is “kind of like a soundtrack in reverse.”

“The filmmaker makes a film, the film gets edited, and then the composer writes music to support what’s happening on the screen,” he said. “What I’m doing is from the other direction.”

Salgado uses a combination of photography, video and historic documents, such as drawings by Galileo, to illustrate each of the planets.

The project began in 2005, when the Chicago Sinfonietta was performing “The Planets” and asked Salgado, then an astronomer with the Adler Planetarium, for visual accompaniment.

“I took that as an opportunity to go from film and illustration and Photoshop into film and motion graphics,” the 50-year-old native of Puerto Rico said. “It would be much better in the service of the music to create a film that follows very closely the character and the tempo of the music. As beautiful and awe-inspiring as the images might be, if you have something that does not correlate with the music, it just becomes a distraction.”

Salgado, who has a company called KV265 that melds science and entertainment, says he begins by closing his eyes and visualizing each movement of the piece.

“I let the music dictate what visuals I should be showing at that particular moment, while at the same time try to keep a visual storyline instead of just showing images at random,” he said.

Hege said that Holst – who composed “The Planets” more than a century ago – died before Pluto was given the designation, and through the years other composers have tried to create a movement comparable with the rest of “The Planets.” Since Pluto lost planet status a few years ago, that point is moot, Hege added.

Salgado said the most difficult planet to obtain footage from was the last planet in the solar system, Neptune.

“But what I’ve done is take that as an opportunity to … leave the solar system so we see the other beautiful objects within our galaxy,” he said. “And then we leave our galaxy and take a virtual tour of the universe, as we see other galaxies passing by.

“It’s a very sublime way of ending the piece,” he added.

It won’t be the final piece of the night – that spot is reserved for Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” which Hege describes as “the closer of all closers, for the concert and for the (classical) season.”

Salgado includes an educational component in his visit, speaking at several schools and the Boeing Planetarium at Exploration Place prior to the performance.

He also gives an onstage introduction before the piece begins.

“At the very least, I come on stage and give the film some perspective,” he said. “If I have to choose one message, it’s the fact that the films are science-based. It’s not science fiction. It’s not things we want to do in the future. It’s things we have achieved as space explorers.”

“The Planets” have been performed as separate works by the Wichita Symphony, Hege said, but to his knowledge the entire work, approximately 45-50 minutes, has not been performed by the orchestra.

Hege said he’s been impressed with Salgado’s work, including a children’s concert project with the Wichita Symphony last season where he added visuals to a composition in progress that was performed for the audience.

Salgado is already on the schedule to return next year for “Moonrise,” with lunar imagery set to Ravel’s “Daphnis & Chloe Suites Nos. 1 and 2” in honor of the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. Salgado says he has 10 different programs available, including stars and galaxies, the solar system and the Northern Lights.

The use of visuals during a symphonic performance is a more recent occurrence for orchestras across the country, Hege said.

“I think it is good for a symphony to have visuals from time to time, simply because other forms of entertainment out there seem to have some form of visual stimulation present,” he said. “Increasingly, the audience is expecting that, not necessary when they go out for a symphony concert, but when they go out for entertainment or ennoblement.”

Hege said he’d like to add visuals as often as his budget would allow. Next season also includes a live performance of the score of “The Wizard of Oz,” synced with the 1939 classic film.

“In some of those concerts, I think it’s good to have those components to them, especially if it aids in the experience. It’s not just a listening experience, but a complete experience,” Hege said. “It seems that in some of our concerts, we should offer that visual component.

“When we find a good marriage of image to music, like this concert, then we say it’s a good thing to do.”


When: 8 p.m. Saturday, April 14 and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 15

Where: Century II concert hall, 225 W. Douglas

Tickets: $25 to $80, from, by phone at 316-267-7658 or at the symphony box office