SASO soaring to ‘The Planets’; Shen will be guest

The Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra is going to the moon and back to open its 2014-15 season this weekend.

The ensemble, beefed up to a record 80 players from the group’s usual 60, will perform Gustav Holst’s seven-movement orchestral suite “The Planets.” Instruments include a bass flute, tenor tuba and the rarely seen bass oboe.

“All these interesting instruments for the audience to hear,” SASO conductor and Music Director Linus Lerner said last week after leading the orchestra in its initial reading of the piece.

It is the largest number of instrumentalists assembled for a SASO concert in the last 25 years. The performance will also feature a women’s chorus performing offstage in the final movement, “Neptune, The Mystic,” their voices fading until all you hear is silence.

“The Planets” is divided into seven movements, each taking its name from a planet. It opens with the rumbling, crashing battle march of Mars then segues to the cascading gentleness of Venus and the triumph of Jupiter, brought to life through lush orchestration including a dynamic brass contingent of a half-dozen horns and four trumpets, twin harps, a percussion section led by a half-dozen timpani and a bass drum, and a wind section that in addition to the bass oboe includes a contrabassoon, three clarinets and a bass clarinet.

Lerner pairs “The Planets” with the playful “Rákoczy March” from Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust” and Mozart’s technically demanding Piano Concerto No. 21, featuring Taiwan-born pianist Sandra Wright Shen.

Shen, who lives in Northern California, adores the Mozart piece, which she will perform several times this season. During a phone call from home last week, she played the opening phrase of the second movement on her piano. Those few minutes of music, co-opted by pop culture in everything from TV shows and commercials to Neil Diamond’s hit “Song Sung Blue,” beguile her, she confessed.

“It’s basically this F-major chord, but the way he made it is almost heavenly,” she explained. “It’s so pure and beyond this world. Mozart put triplets beneath it to create this restlessness, this earthy emotion underneath this somewhat transcendent line.”

Shen said she can also see Figaro, one of Mozart’s most-beloved opera characters.

“He carves out someone who could be like Figaro, a very witty servant,” she said. “You can see his gleaming eyes; he’s up to something. What’s so great about Mozart’s operas and works is it reminds me of seeing a painting where the artist can bring out extraordinary from ordinary.”

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