Composers have long described the natural world in music: Beethoven wrote his sensual “Pastoral” Symphony, Stravinsky the tempestuous “Rite of Spring,” Led Zeppelin the “Misty Mountain Hop.” (You may have different examples.) Few, however, can surpass Gustav Holst’s spectacular suite, The Planets, performed tonight by the Las Vegas Philharmonic.
Although Sir Edward Elgar composed his Cello Concerto in E Minor around the same time as Holst wrote most of The Planets, Elgar’s piece reflects more earthly matters namely, the horror of the Great War that had just ended. Appropriately, the Philharmonic’s guest soloist for this piece was the expressive virtuoso Daniel Gaisford, who sat directly facing the audience to present the drama of this concerto.
Despite the tone, Gaisford made the piece fun to watch. With great finesse, he lingered over long notes like a mother saying goodbye to a son going off to war. In one quiet pizzicato section, he plucked the notes with the painstaking care of a man defusing a bomb. The very end of the concerto saw a sudden crescendo, and one can imagine Elgar shaking an anguished fist at the world for what it had wrought, but the final notes are quiescent, as the anger returns to despair.
Ready for a truce? “Venus, Bringer of Peace” is soft and gorgeous, but it depicts the peace that follows war: forlorn and exhausted. Just when you’re ready to cry, “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” flits playfully across the heavens, the very image of a fleet-footed guy with wings and a mailbag.
“Uranus, the Magician” brings back more fun in the form of mischief. The excitement builds, making you feel there’s some trouble coming, until a huge blast brings an abrupt ending to the tricks. The final movement, “Neptune, the Mystic” wraps up the piece with a mysterious depiction of the vastness of space. An off-stage chorus of female voices adds beautifully to the ethereal quality. Instead of building to a grand finale, the music gradually fades out, the harpist plucking some of the last soft notes as the distant planet disappears in the night. This is not a Tchaikovsky ending.
Back here on Planet Las Vegas, the Philharmonic will perform “A World in Harmony” on April 9 and will present “On the Town” on May 7 and 8 for its 2004-2005 season finale. (Click here for information.) As for tonight’s unusual finale, “Jupiter” might have been more conventionally suitable, but after “Mercury,” Holst preferred to address the remaining spheres in orbital sequence. Besides, the beauty of “The Planets” is ultimately its sense of wonder, and there’s no better way to convey that sentiment than to remind us what a big universe is out there.
By Robert LaGrone, Las Vegas Jetsetters Magazine Entertainment Editor.