May 22, 2009

A New Appreciation for The Planets

After last night’s concert, I have a new appreciation for Holst’s The Planets. I had heard it before on recordings, and last summer heard the RPO play it at CMAC. But that was such a different experience, being outdoors and with the wonderful images of planets on the big screen, so you could just let the music take you on a journey. This time, I was more able to focus on the different sounds in the orchestration, and Christopher’s pre-concert chat provided some new insights.

There are bits in the opening Mars movement that sound like they’re straight out of a Star Wars movie – although I suspect it’s the other way around, since John William had probably heard Holst. Christopher observed that the movement was five beats to a measure – instead of a typical march in two – which dehumanized the music. Made me think of a platoon of Storm Troopers.

The next movement, Venus, had some beautiful lyrical bits, appropriate for the Bringer of Peace. It was nice hearing the interplay between the harps and the celesta; and at one point, Juliana Athayde, our Concertmaster, had a solo which then passed to the Principal Oboe, Erik Behr. It was an especially sweet moment, knowing that they’re engaged.

Next comes Mercury, and you could really hear the quicksilver messenger in the darting, up-tempo music. Christopher pointed out that in Holst’s time, the quickest means of communication would have been Morse code, and you can hear that punctuated rhythm in the music, especially in the percussion section.

Jupiter enters bringing jollity and laughter. This happy movement is one of the most recognizable – perhaps because one section has had words put to it (much to Holst’s dismay, apparently). It’s a famous English poem, I Vow to Thee My Country, and was played at the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

Saturn is the Bringer of Old Age, and I found myself picturing an old man in a bathrobe and slippers, slowly walking down a long hallway. It does have a very deliberate gait to it at the beginning, as if considering the approach of old age and all it brings, but a very peaceful acceptance at the end. This movement also featured the bass oboe – an instrument I’d never heard before.

Immediately after comes Uranus, the Magician. Christopher called this “The Teddy Bear’s Apprentice,” since it sounds like a cross between Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Teddy Bear Picnic. There were some playful and surprising bits, then it was like it all went up in a puff of smoke.

The last movement, Neptune, takes us to the outer edges of the universe, as it was known at that time (Pluto had not yet been discovered). The music was very ethereal, appropriate for The Mystic, as Neptune was called. When the women’s chorus floats in from offstage, you feel like you’re spinning out into space.

On the way home from the concert, I realized that The Planets is similar to other music I really like – for instance, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun – in how it has you picturing certain images. But where Debussy is impressionistic program music conveying feelings, the Holst is more like a movie soundtrack, just waiting for you to put actual images to it.

There’s another chance to hear The Planets – and also Haydn’s unusual Farewell Symphony with its dramatic ending – Saturday night at Eastman Theatre. Click here for more information. It’s worth going early for the 7:00 pm pre-concert chat – Christopher is engaging, entertaining, and very informative. Also be prepared for a huge orchestra for The Planets – not sure how they fit everyone on the stage!

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