If you have been following along this season at The Philadelphia Orchestra you already know three things. First, Verizon Theatre lives up to all the hype about its sound quality. Second, the environment is ideal for a classy evening out. And third, the orchestra can handle both modern and early romantic period concert music with great technical skill.
The question on our mind entering Kimmel Cultural Campus to see Holst’s The Planets was: “How well can an orchestra known for its technical precision and clarity handle program music?”
If you are not aware, program music is music designed to emote the feelings of an event or place. For an example, take a ride down the river by listening to Die Moldau by Bedrich Smetana and pay attention to the rolling waves past a carnival and other sights.
Program music requires the conductor to present the piece with a more generalized and accessible interpretation for the larger audience. This is different than a Mozart Symphony where the general audience will recognize the beauty of the piece and only those trained or who have researched the piece will identify the choices the conductor makes.
Ironically, Holst insisted to his death that this music should not be categorized as programmatic as he felt it had no connection to the deities or classical mythology of the same names.
May I respectfully disagree with the composer because of what this piece has become in modern culture? There is so much in Hollywood that has been adopted or adapted from this music (listen to the Gladiator soundtrack after a concert like this and tell me it has not become something more). Furthermore, when you are dealing with a piece such as Holst’s Planets—composed during the first part of World War I—there are significant contextual cultural meanings in just the titles of every movement. Each planet is recognizable and significant: from Mars The Bringer of War to Neptune The Mystic.
For most who come intentionally to this concert, they expect a story. Therefore, program music or not, every directorial choice will either convey a clear message and story or merely present a tune. For me, if the performance is to be great, the orchestra must truly shift tones with each movement.
Prior to the evening’s capstone performance, we were treated to a rapid, rich, beautifully pregnant treatment of Brahm’s Tragic Overture. Then, the orchestra’s first playing of modern composer Missy Mazzoli’s Violin Concerto which slid around the dissonant scales in an uncomfortable and disquieting ghostly haunting of Verizon Hall. Perhaps this should have been played a couple weeks earlier. An individual behind us described the piece as “the death of a blue whale.” That poetic description encapsulates the piece. The soloist was brilliant. The orchestra magnificent. The piece, lacking.
So how well did guest conductor Marin Alsop (former music director of the Baltimore Symphony) and the orchestra convey the shifting tones and beauty of these movements?
Her conducting was clear and straightforward, beautiful to watch, and demanding of the orchestra.
Mars The Bringer of War
Arguably the most famous of the movements seemed slightly out of balance dynamically between the percussion and the brass sections, each, at times drowning out the entirety of the rest of the orchestra. The piece moved forward with robotic precision, yet the movement failed to move what it was meant to do so in my soul, it ended up just being loud and plain. If a machine could be programmed to conduct the piece, this performance is what I would expect to hear.
Venus The Bringer of Peace
The amazing thing about this Orchestra is that every soloist absolutely nails their performance. Perhaps I have been to one too many high school band concerts, but it is truly refreshing when a French horn player is a master of his or her craft. This second movement played very much to the metronome and cadence like the first, yet the dynamic balance swept in and out with more feeling, but it still lacks the vibrant warmth of my favorite recording of the piece (The London Philharmonic). This interpretation is more akin to what I would expect from the Berlin Philharmonic—bombastic and bold.
Mercury The Winged Messenger
This was the first movement that I felt captured the title and expected. The orchestra played with a lively and airy touch that captured the excitement of the ideal of Mercury.
Jupiter The Bringer of Jollity
And then we went right back to a straight robotic interpretation for Jupiter. Technically sound but lacking those dynamic and tonal colors that the greatest of conductors bring out in their masterworks and definitive performances. An exception in this movement was the string processional section that elevated the moment.
Saturn The Bringer of Old Age
If Walter Matthau’s character in Grumpy Old Men were captured in a musical performance, it would be this movement as played tonight. Like the Mercury movement, this movement excelled the rest in quality.
Uranus The Magician
Another movement painted by the numbers with the exceptions of the soloists who infused their unique flavors into a plain vanilla performance.
Neptune The Mystic
Neptune may be the most underrated of the movements in this piece, but the orchestra finished strong and tapped into the ethereal tones of the piece quite nicely. The choir sang from an area that we as an audience could not see, which added to the ambiance.
I liked the performance, especially their Brahms piece. I did not leave wishing I could bring all my family to hear tonight’s performance. Perhaps the orchestra and other conductors are partially to blame by setting the bar so absolutely high in its previous performances this year. Perhaps too much research also tainted my preferences beforehand. Regardless of my opinions, the musicians continue to prove capable of playing anything placed in front of them in any style.
One final note. Marin Alsop must be applauded and thanked for filling the shoes of the recently deceased Bramwell Tovey, who was originally scheduled to conduct tonight’s performance.
Journey into the cosmos with Gustav Holst’s The Planets as otherworldly scenes delve into the human psyche. Experience the ferocity of Mars, the Bringer of War; the jollity of Jupiter; the tranquility of Venus, the Bringer of Peace; the mystical Neptune; and all the rest.
The dazzling virtuosity of violinist Jennifer Koh and the brilliance of Missy Mazzoli—“Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart” (Time Out New York)—take center stage in Mazzoli’s Violin Concerto (“Procession”). Writing for Koh during the height of the pandemic, the composer found inspiration in the history of medieval healing rituals, casting her soloist as a soothsayer, sorcerer, healer, and pied piper-type character, leading the orchestra through five interconnected healing spells.
The program, conducted by the legendary Marin Alsop, opens with Johannes Brahms’s stirring Tragic Overture.
*we were invited to facilitate a feature, all opinions are our own*