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. 

Excluding the earth, and written before Pluto was designated the ninth planet, this work comprises seven movements describing the seven other known planets as they relate to classical mythology.  Each movement is distinct in style and, according to the composer, not related to the others musically.  However, the chosen sequence makes for a very moving and unique musical experience.

Sir William Walton

First things first, of course.  Great orchestral performances normally start with overtures, and English composer William Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Overture set a lively, upbeat tone.  Written for the South African capital’s seventieth anniversary in 1956, the piece is full of melodic European optimism, flavored in the middle with a pulsating percussion passage drawn from traditional Zulu music.

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.

Sir Edward Elgar
Until the twentieth century, European wars were largely affairs of honor in which small royal armies did battle far from the cities.  A few soldiers were lost on each side, and the public rooted for their sides like distant soccer teams.  World War I, with its industrial-strength killing machines, changed everything and gave the continent a sense of lost innocence.  Elgar’s concerto is a lament for a bygone age, filled with sad, sweet passages throughout its three movements.  Even the final “allegro” section is utterly devoid of the optimism we heard in Walton’s overture.

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.

Gustav Holst
( 1874-1934)

Fasten your seatbelts.  If Elgar depicted war’s melancholy aftermath, Holst opens with its terrifying arrival.  The first section, entitled “Mars, Bringer of War,” starts quiet and tense, with low brass over a cadence set by the strings in unusual 5/4 time.  The uneven tempo gives an impression of deranged zombie soldiers created hastily in a laboratory and staggering by the thousands into battle for their mad, evil ruler.  (Again, you may have a different image — but mine is better.)  The intensity builds into a horrific portrayal of the chaos of total war.  In this movement, conductor Hal Weller got more sheer volume out of the orchestra than I had ever heard before.  A humongous, desperate climax signals that the beast is upon you, and there’s nowhere to run.

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.

The expressive virtuoso
Daniel Gaisford.

You may have heard “Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity” on the radio; with its rollicking tone and incredible orchestration, it is eminently pleasing and would make a terrific overture in its own right.  By contrast, “Saturn, Bringer of Old Age” is quite serious, with a slow, measured pace representing the relentless march of time.  It approaches, building in volume, and then passes on by, its musical apex more like a low hill than a sharp peak.

“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. 

Visit Webbandstand.comBack 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.

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