From the sight of emperor penguins in Antarctica, huddled against the cold and darkness, to sweeping shots of herd-filled plains, the TV series "Planet Earth" reached new heights of nature filmmaking.
The show, which debuted on the BBC in 2006 and in this country on the Discovery Channel the next year, featured the results from 12,000 hours of film shot on state-of-the-art, high-def equipment over a period of 2,000 days on 204 locations in 62 countries. "Planet Earth" gained impressive ratings around the globe and, in its DVD release, has sold millions of copies.
An essential element to the success of the series is the evocative music of British composer George Fenton. Tonight, he will conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a concert version of his score, while selected video from the "Planet Earth" episodes is projected on a screen overhead.
Fenton, whose extensive feature film scores include "Dangerous Liaisons," "Groundhog Day" and "Bewitched," was also the composer for the precursor to "Planet Earth" — "Blue Planet," a series focusing on the world's oceans, which first aired on the BBC in 2001. In the United Kingdom, he conducted a theatrical concert version of music from that show a few years ago.
"When I did the 'Blue Planet' concert, I realized it was a completely different experience for an audience than seeing it on television," Fenton says. "I'm not saying that it elevated it. But having 85 people playing the music underneath a big screen energizes what you're seeing. And you see the whole thing on a scale it deserves. Hopefully, people will go away [from the Baltimore concert] feeling they got what 'Planet Earth' is about in a way they hadn't before."
Having scored the multi-episode "Blue Planet," Fenton initially resisted the offer to work on another such project, this one with 11 episodes.
"I was in California and I was deeply into feature films when they called me about doing 'Planet Earth,'" he says. "I told them they no. It's not like nobody had made a film about jungles and things before. I said they should commission 11 composers to do 11 scores, and go outside the box. But they persisted, and they said it needed to have one [musical] voice for the whole series. I wasn't popular with my agent at all when I said I was going home to do this."
Composing for a series that traversed so much territory — on, above and below the surface — was no small feat. In the end, he produced nine hours of music.
"The difficult thing about writing it was that it's not nine hours of 'Desperate Housewives,'" Fenton says. "I don't say that in a disparaging way, but because each hour of 'Desperate Housewives' is very similar in landscape, character and tone to the episode before. 'Planet Earth' is a series largely held together by a pretty loose concept — the Earth and its relationship to the Sun."
Fenton rose to the challenge. While creating the music, he was conscious of style — "It needs to be accessible; the audience for these things is very, very wide" — and of never interfering with the imagery.
"There's no theater of effort where people more deserve their credit than [filming] natural history," the composer says. "They go around the world, sit for a very long time in appalling conditions to get one shot. Then they spend months in the cutting room. When it's all done, you're supposed to wonder at the majesty and beauty of what you see. If people are sitting there thinking about a musical theme, that would be bad."
In the BSO's concert-and-video format, audiences may well find themselves paying a good deal of attention to Fenton's expertly crafted, colorfully orchestrated music. It ranges from grand lyrical statements to lighthearted bursts of melody and atmospheric dabs of sound, not to mention haunting harmonies with an underlying tension that bring to mind iconic film composer Bernard Herrmann.
Fenton has signed on to score the next project from the creators of "Blue Planet" and "Planet Earth" – "Frozen Planet," which should be done early next year.
"After that I'll be fed up with single-handedly saving the planet," the composer says with a laugh. "I'll probably do something less wholesome. Maybe I'll go out to California again."
If you go
The BSO's "Planet Earth" concert will be performed at 7:30 tonight at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $20 to $62. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.