On a cool August night in Los Angeles, IFMCA members Jon Broxton and Daniel Schweiger were among the thousands of attendees at the Hollywood Bowl for “America in Space,” a concert celebrating the achievements of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and the brave men and women who venture into the cosmos, with a program of film music from movies about the space race.
The event featured original film and concert music by composers Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, Benjamin Wallfisch, Penka Kouneva, Justin Hurwitz, Michael Giacchino, James Horner, Harry Gregson-Williams, and Steven Price, as well as selections of classical music by Gustav Holst and Aaron Copland. David Newman conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, with guest performances by violinist Nathan Cole, soprano vocalist Diana Newman, woodwind specialist Pedro Eustache, and the Recharj sound bowl ensemble.
The idea for the evening was originally conceived by composer Penka Kouneva, who pitched her proposal for a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landings to Michael Alexander, Caltech’s Director of Campus Programs. In 2015 Kouneva and Varese Sarabande Records released an orchestral concept album entitled The Woman Astronaut, which celebrated these same ideals, and one of the selections from that work formed the centerpiece of the concert. Anchored by a sparkling violin solo by Nathan Cole, Kouneva’s soaring orchestral writing was accompanied by video testimonials from and about NASA’s real-life woman astronauts, including Sally Ride, Kathryn Sullivan, and Shannon Lucid.
The concert was bookended by selections from Gustav Holst’s 1918 masterpiece The Planets. The bombastic, aggressive ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’ has inspired the film work of numerous film composers, notably the Oscar-winning duo of John Williams’s Star Wars and Bill Conti’s The Right Stuff, and is one of the most beloved classical works of the 20th century. ‘Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity’ is of course lighter and more playful, with a stunning lyrical section that inspired the great English hymn ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country”.
Also of note was the west coast premiere of Advent, a classical piece by composer Michael Giacchino written for a large orchestra, soprano vocalist Diana Newman, woodwind specialist Pedro Eustache, and the Recharj sound bowl ensemble. The work is intended to be a piece of self-reflection, a look at the beauty of Earth from the vantage point of space; at times it is moody and mysterious, at other times it is graceful and elegant, and the music soars with Newman’s beautiful vocal performance.
The warm, hopeful orchestral tones of the score for Hidden Figures by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch acknowledges the work of African American women such as Katherine Johnson, whose mathematical genius was instrumental in allowing John Glenn to become the first American in space in 1962. The mesmerizing, hypnotic music from First Man by Justin Hurwitz accompanies Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic moon landing as part of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.
The frantic, aggressive “Master Alarm” sequence from James Horner’s Apollo 13 was used to acknowledge the fact that, sometimes, space exploration is dangerous and uncertain, but that the ingenuity of people like Jim Lovell, Ken Mattingly, and Gene Kranz can be enough to bring people home. JPL geologist Abigail Fraeman introduced Harry Gregson-Williams’s score for The Martian with a look at the work she and her colleagues do exploring the surface of Mars with the Curiosity Rover science team; Gregson-Williams’s piece “Crossing Mars,” gradually grows into a triumphant, fully orchestral statement of a rousing theme for majestic, heroic horns and sweeping, stirring strings. Finally, the vivid and challenging “Shenzou” sequence from Steven Price’s Oscar-winning score for Gravity accompanied another female astronaut – Sandra Bullock’s fictional Ryan Stone – as she desperately tries to return home following a disaster on board the Hubble space telescope.
This was a truly tremendous event, a wonderful celebration of the tireless work America’s space scientists have contributed to the world, from those early pioneers like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, to the contemporary men and women seeking to explore the surface of Mars, and beyond. Penka Kouneva’s personal curation of the program of music was both thoughtful and inspirational, the performances by David Newman, the LA Phil, and the soloists were outstanding, and the fact that the concert ended under a starlit night just a mile or so from the twinkling lights of Hollywood was perfectly appropriate.