When the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra makes its Chicago debut next month, it will bring stars both literal and figurative to the Symphony Center.
The Oct. 14 show, titled “The Galaxy’s Greatest Hits,” will feature an arrangement of space-themed pieces to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1969 moon landing, conducted by Benjamin Northey and hosted by “Star Trek” actor George Takei.
A screen at the back of the stage will show images of space and clips from iconic science fiction films while the orchestra plays. In between pieces, Takei will be in conversation with Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke, who became the youngest person to walk on the moon in 1972.
Takei said he was excited to accept the MSO’s invitation to host a show centered around the wonder and awe of space exploration.
“That’s the frontier — as we call it on ‘Star Trek,’ the final frontier — for man’s curiosity and sense of adventure,” Takei said. “This concert by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is a musical presentation of that adventure.”
The concert will feature classical orchestral pieces related to the moon or the stars, including the “Mars” movement from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets,” Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which was used as the opening theme for Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The orchestra will also play more contemporary works from science fiction films and TV series, including Jerry Goldsmith’s music from “Star Trek” and pieces by John Williams from “Star Wars,” “E.T.” and “Lost in Space.”
Takei said the pop culture factor could broaden the concert’s appeal beyond audiences who would typically attend the symphony.
“That opening march in ‘Star Wars’ stirs the blood and really kind of raises your sense of exploration,” Takei said. “Music is an organic part of the storytelling in science fiction, and that becomes something that connects with a large [audience], not necessarily [just] symphonic music-appreciating people, but the associations with a sense of adventure, a sense of exploration, a sense of going where no man has gone before.”
Aside from the fact that the MSO has never before played here, managing director Sophie Galaise said Chicago’s exciting music/cultural arts scene made the city a prime location to kick off the orchestra’s first U.S. tour in nearly 50 years.
“It’s such an amazing city. It’s well-known for having a very vibrant music scene,” Galaise said. “It’s a mecca for jazz. It has an amazing orchestra that’s one of the top leading orchestras in the United States.”
Chicago jazz vocalist Kurt Elling and Australian jazz musician James Morrison also will join the orchestra to perform standards including “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Come Fly With Me” and “I Like the Sunrise.”
Galaise said the orchestra has a long history of collaborating with contemporary artists and creating programming around pop culture. The orchestra has performed with acts including Elton John, Sting and Nick Cave and staged shows with Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli.
“It’s part of our DNA to perform a great classic repertoire, but also we believe in being champions of music of our time and of different genres,” Galaise said.
She said the decision to do a space-themed show to commemorate the moon landing was inspired, in part, by Australia’s national pride for the role the country played in broadcasting Neil Armstrong’s iconic first steps: A satellite dish in Australia was used as a relay to transmit the video from the Apollo 11 mission worldwide.
Takei recalls watching the broadcast and being struck by the stark contrast between NASA’s operation and the sleek fantasy of interstellar travel on “Star Trek.”
“What we saw on TV were all these gawky, spidery, hard, mechanical devices taking forever and a day to land, and then these astronauts coming out in what looked like marshmallow outfits,” Takei said, laughing. “It looked so antique, so old-fashioned. We just beamed down, sparkling. We did it better than NASA did, at Paramount Studios.
“The fantastical world was supposed to be the 23rd century, and the fact that we did that in the mid-20th century is fantastic on the level of fantasy,” he added. “It’s an amazing achievement of humankind.”
The “Galaxy’s Greatest Hits” program will be a Chicago exclusive for now, with the MSO set to play more traditional classical fare for the remainder of its U.S. tour, but Galaise said they hope to present the space-themed show again next year in Melbourne.