Review: Houston Symphony brings the gravity of The Planets to life
By Chris Gray
The Houston Chronicle
The Houston Symphony has had a fruitful relationship with The Planets for a while. About a decade ago, the orchestra drew widespread acclaim by pairing Gustav Holst’s astrologically minded 1914-17 suite, a symphony in all but name, with footage captured by NASA spacecraft. Holiday alert: DVD/Blu-Ray copies of the result, “The Planets: An HD Odyssey,” are still available in the Houston Symphony Store.
Over the weekend, Holst’s celestial bodies returned to Jones Hall under the baton of Gemma New, a young New Zealander making her Houston Symphony debut. Music director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, New proved a vigorous and expressive leader, unlocking a riveting performance with or without NASA footage.
The program opened with a British composer of more recent vintage, the U.S. premiere of Alissa Firsova’s Bride of the Wind. Firsova, also a noted pianist, based the piece on a painting of the same name by the late Oskar Kokoschka. It amounts to an aural account of his affair with Gustav Mahler’s widow, Alma: alternating between passionate eruptions and pockets tranquility or unease, eventually settling into a placid stillness and certain wistfulness by the closing bars.
Edward Elgar’s autumnal Cello Concerto, the next piece on the program, was brought on by World War I and the declining health of both the composer and his wife; it’s hard to imagine an instrument better suited to darker moods. Franco-Belgian soloist Camille Thomas tapped into its deep melancholy with confidence and elegance, balancing complex fingerwork in the concerto’s long, flowing lines with a radiant tone that blended especially well with the other strings. Light and airy it was not, but her encore of Pablo Casals’ Song of the Birds did help dissipate any lingering dark clouds heading into intermission.
A banquet of orchestral textures and colors, The Planets is one of those pieces that people hear a lot though they may not know it: the suite, for which Holst assigned each planet (excepting ours) characteristics as described in the works of noted Victorian-era astrologer Alan Leo, was a profound influence on John Williams’ score for the “Star Wars” films. “Star Trek” too, for that matter.
Conducting with bold strokes and palpable sensitivity, New led the orchestra through the white-knuckle tension of relentless opening march “Mars, the Bringer of War” at a take-no-prisoners clip only to about-face during “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” a serene and inviting tableau of dreamlike woodwinds and twinkling xylophone. A playful “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” fed into the stirring widescreen melody of “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” which was quickly adapted into the ultra-British patriotic hymn “I Vow to Thee, My Country.”
The ponderous “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” made a brilliant study in dynamic contrasts as it plodded toward the inevitable, a celestial vision revealed by sublimely pealing bells. A wonderful piece of writing for many bass instruments, “Uranus, the Magician” signaled the symphony’s upcoming “Fantasia” weekend by nodding at “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” before the otherworldly denouement of “Neptune, the Mystic.”
Interestingly (and encouragingly), Holst chose to end The Planets not with an orchestral cataclysm, but a disembodied choir of female voices that leave the audience with the feeling they could be floating off into space themselves. Listeners have been better off for it ever since, and certainly were this weekend.
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