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Boldly Go Where No Orchestra Has Gone Before

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Long before NASA gave us a glimpse of outer space, classical music led the way. In 1914, over 40 years before Sputnik was launched, composer Gustav Holst cast his imagination to the far side of the solar system, embarking on a piece of music entitled The Planets.

It's one of the great British works for orchestra, bursting with instantly recognisable themes from the opening sonic blitz depicting Mars, which surely inspired John Williams' own galactic music for Star Wars, to the soaring strains of Jupiter, later transformed into the hymn I Vow To Thee My Country that we've all belted out at school assemblies, rugby matches and weddings.

Throughout you're reminded of the power of an orchestra: to transform itself into something that leaves behind any semblance of its component parts. Listening to its big blazing climaxes and mystic interludes, you don't sit there thinking about cellos and flutes and trombones, instead what's brought to mind are comets and craters and landscapes like nothing on earth.

This month, London's Science Museum and Philharmonia Orchestra have joined forces, inviting us to encounter this piece in a revolutionary new way.

As you walk through the museum's trove of wonders, above the models of rockets and mooncraft you hear orchestral music. It lures you upstairs to a free exhibit called Universe of Sound. Here you can experience classical music like never before.

If you're one of those people who once went to a symphonic concert and found it all a bit too formal, with everyone sat regimentally in rows and the orchestra seemingly worlds away, distanced by being up on stage and wearing penguin suits, then you'll find this a bit of a liberation.

You walk into the exhibit and instantly the orchestra is all around you, its players projected cinematically on every wall, their titanic sound coming at you from all corners. You start amid the violins, seeing fingers scurry gymnastically up and down the instruments in striking close-up. Cleverly, their sound is slightly more prominent in the mix so it feels like you're genuinely among them and, as you proceed from one room to the next, other instruments fill the screens and step out of the soundscape.

The alchemy of an orchestra - the strange way these wood and brass contraptions can collectively create sounds that conjure all sorts of potent images and emotions - is laid bare like never before. You find yourself standing gawping at the visuals you see on the screens and the corresponding sounds with the same wonder you take to Tate Modern. You're suddenly miles from the mannered etiquette of concert halls, and you're allowed to be yourself, roaming freely inside the music.

To my mind, The Planets has never sounded better, the sense of discovery unlocked by the experience perfectly allied to music that's all about charting new worlds. As you wander deeper into the exhibit, various inspired features let you interact with the music even more. You can become the conductor, beating time and seeing your hand gestures replicated on the screen in front of you; you can join the percussion section and add your own flourishes to the volcanic fury of Mars, banging drums and a gong; you can even watch and marvel at a few real-life Philharmonia players re-enacting their part seamlessly alongside their virtual counterparts.

Seeing musicians this close reminds you what athletes they are, as worthy of medals as the Olympians we'll see in London later this summer. Check it out if you can before 31 July: it's only a small step for you to swing by the Science Museum in South Kensington, but this ingenious, immersive experience is a giant leap for classical music.

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Universe of Sound: The Planets - Visit the Museum - Science Museum

Universe of Sound: The Planets - Educators - Science Museum

Museum of Science, Boston | Current Exhibits | Cosmic Light

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Science Museum Philharmonia Orchestra Plays The Planets Virtually