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The NY Philharmonic Performs Music of the Stars

by Photo of Paul Hansen

The Philharmonic performs Holst’s ‘The Planets’ and music by John Williams

The NY Philharmonic Performs Music of the Stars

The New York Philharmonic played music of the stars, or more literally the planets, in its concert last Thursday.  The program featured Holst's celebrated symphonic poem "The Planets" as well as a tuba concerto by John Williams, who obviously knows a thing or two about writing music for the heavens as well.

The program opened with Elgar's "Introduction and Allegro for Strings" which featured a string quartet selected from the principal players of the orchestra.  The Philharmonic gave a lyrical account of the intriguing piece, and the very clean and precise intonation of the large string ensemble was particularly impressive.  

The Elgar selection was followed by John Williams' Tuba Concerto composed in the mid-1980's.  The program contained a note indicating that Williams' interest in the tuba can be traced to a film score he wrote back in 1967. Williams is quoted as saying, “I've always liked the tuba and even used to play it a little. I wrote a big tuba solo for a Dick Van Dyke movie called Fitzwilly and ever since I've kept composing for it - it's such an agile instrument...”

I have found Williams' concert music to be somewhat more opaque than his film scores, with the thematic material not quite so boldly stated. I admired Williams' savvy orchestration of the concerto. Although scored for a relatively large ensemble, the tuba never became overwhelmed by the other orchestra forces on stage, except in the few brief instances where it was obviously the composer's intent. Tubist Alan Baer played the spirited concerto with evident relish.

The second half of the program was devoted to Gustav Holst's "The Planets."  Consisting of seven movements and written in the period 1914-16, each movement describes the characteristics of a different planet - “Venus, the Bringer of Peace,” “Mercury, the Winged Messenger,” etc. Probably the most celebrated movement is the opening selection of the suite, “Mars, the Bringer of War.” Perhaps the particular power of this movement can in part be traced to the fact that it was written in an atmosphere when Europe was either in the midst of or on the brink of a military conflagration.

It is standard practice at a concert to applaud after a suite or set of movements is completely over. However, such was the power of the Philharmonic's rendition of the "Jupiter" excerpt (a particularly spectacular episode in the middle of the suite) that the audience spontaneously broke into applause. The conductor - David Robertson - turned around to the audience and said, “It's hard not to applaud after that.” He has that right.

As with a prior review which I wrote several months ago for the Philharmonic's performance of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring,"  I felt in a few instances that some of the more robust passages of Holst's score were played a bit too loudly for the proportions of Geffen Hall.  The Philharmonic's rendition of the more subdued portions of the suite (e.g. the Venus and Neptune sections) was ethereal.   One couldn't help but be impressed by Holst's ability to create overpowering orchestral tapestries and then shift to symphonic palettes that were much more intimate but no less effective.

The performance was authoritatively led by guest conductor David Robertson. He is currently the music director of the St. Louis Symphony, and chief conductor and artistic director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Upcoming events at the Philharmonic include a series of concerts this week (June 2-4) focusing on the seasons.  The program includes Vivaldi's ever popular "The Four Seasons," Grieg's "The Last Spring" and Piazzolla's "Four Seasons of Buenos Aires" in an arrangement by L. Desyatnikov.     The orchestra is also in the midst of its second NY Phil Biennial which explores contemporary music in a variety of venues in the city and in conjunction with a number of other prestigious performance organizations.  The festival runs through June 11.

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