Preview of SASO’s Oct. 4-5 season opener

By Punch Howarth

Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst

Linus Lerner again conducts the season opening concert by the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra, on Oct. 4–5, 2013, featuring Gustav Holst’s The Planets, as well as music by Berlioz and Mozart.

Opening the program is a stately Hungarian military march by Hector Berlioz. He labeled it Rakoczy March and it is from his opera The Damnation of Faust. Following will be the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart performed by Sandra Wright Shen. Ms. Shen has a BM and MM in piano performance from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. She has collaborated in chamber music with Vesselin Parashkevov, concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic; performed with the Alban Berg Quartet, Grant Johannessen, orchestras in Taiwan, South Carolina, California, and at Kennedy Center in Washington. She teaches at Brevard Music Institute and has released three CDs.

Gustav Holst’s suite The Planets will be the big dramatic work following intermission. Although the real planets have been defined by astronomy, a physical science, Holst’s suite is based upon astrology, a pseudoscience like alchemy and phrenology. In late 19th century England, spiritualism, seances and astrology were popular as entertainment. Astrology, through horoscopes, attempts to predict human activities and events. Holst had a fascination with astrology and used it as the basis for The Planets, where he let his imagination dominate. The work was finished in 1916 but didn’t have a complete public performance until 1920, by the London Symphony Orchestra.

The suite is in seven movements.

  1. MARS, the bringer of war. This opening three-part section is heard over a pulsating, relentless 5/4 rhythm running from soft to very loud. Even though this was composed before World War I, his premise was that war is senseless horror.
  2. VENUS, the bringer of peace. This serene music is a contrast to Mars, with a variety of solo instruments injecting subtle ideas.
  3. MERCURY, the winged messenger. Here we have the shortest and quickest movement. To make things interesting, Holst has simultaneous keys of B-flat and E and rhythms of two against three.
  4. JUPITER, the bringer of jollity. Here we have the most complex movement, with a half dozen subjects. Holst includes folk idioms, and another innovation is the melody played by the two timpani. His last theme is used as a hymn in Britain, “I vow to thee my country.”
  5. SATURN, the bringer of old age. The tempo is mostly very slow with some changes in both meter and tempo. The music is lugubrious at both the start and finish.
  6. URANUS, the magician. The music opens with four sustained chords in trumpets and trombones followed by four punctuations of tubas and an abrupt timpani retort. The meter is mostly 6/4 but deviates, and the music knows no bounds. It will sound at times like everyone is doing his own thing, but no—Holst has it all on paper. Following what sounds like chaos, there is a very slow coda evaporating from very loud to very soft.
  7. NEPTUNE, the mystic. The meter is again in 5/4 time but not punctuated like in Mars. The music is pure impressionism and never goes above very soft, and is quite slow. Muted strings, two harps and celesta are featured. A wordless choral part is performed by female voices at about the halfway point. After the orchestra conclusion, the chorus slowly fades to silence.

The suite normally runs 55 minutes.

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory (Kitt Peak) will provide slides and other materials on the planets.

This opening concert will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 4 at SaddleBrooke’s DesertView Performing Arts Center and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 5 at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

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