Recap: Fun and good times with Holst’s ‘The Planets’ and the Grand Rapids Symphony.

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

It’s almost impossible to believe how old Gustav Holst’s The Planets is. The symphonic suite sounds fresh from the cinema and a killer opening weekend for the latest sci-fi blockbuster.

In fact, the English composer began work on the seven-movement work in 1914 at the end of the horse-and-buggy era. The Planets only sounds like the soundtrack for a five-year mission to boldly go where no man has gone before because film composers have drawn inspiration from its rhythms and energy.

Composers such as John Williams have chosen wisely. The Planets is a big work that packs a big wallop, and even more so with the full forces of the Grand Rapids Symphony under the capable baton of Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.

The fifth concert of the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical series ended with a standing ovation lasting nearly 5 minutes on Friday, February 2. The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, February 3 in DeVos Performance Hall.

Lehninger, in his second season with the Grand Rapids Symphony, came to have fun. When he entered the hall to conduct Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 on the first half, Lehninger scampered up the podium like a kid about to board a roller coaster. He just couldn’t wait.

The audience was ready to have a good time as well. Scattered applause followed nearly every movement throughout Friday’s concert from start to finish.

Though it’s a well-known piece to concert goers, Lehninger’s performance was thoroughly enjoyable. The insistent energy and ambitious scope of “Mars, The Bringer of War,” was exciting, making full use of a big orchestra that filled the stage. The robust melodies and deftly executed mixed meters of “Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity,” left the audience gasping at the end. “Uranus, The Magician,” was stately and lively at the same time and full of sparkling moments.

The same was true for the softer movements. Exposed solos in Venus, The Bringer of Peace,” were delightful. The nimbleness and agility of “Mercury, The Winged Messenger,” was mesmerizing. In the final movement, “Neptune, The Mystic,” the voices of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, singing off stage, entered the performance so unobtrusively, it took minutes for many in the audience to realize what they were hearing.

The Planets really has nothing to do with the actual planets. Rather, Holst, an amateur astrologer, was inspired by the astrological significance of the planets and their effects on the human psyche. Not surprisingly, it’s music that pushes the emotional buttons.

Nevertheless, the performance of the 48 minute work was accompanied by video of outer space and interplanetary exploration created by the Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium of the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

Some of the footage was animated, but much of the film was actual video. The journey across the Martian landscape or through the rings of Saturn at times was breathtaking.

The Planets is a big piece and a tough piece. Before giving the downbeat for the Holst suite on the second half, Lehninger joked from the stage that the hard music was over. He wasn’t entirely joking.

It’s not that the music of the Classical Era was difficult to play, note by note, phrase by phrase. The trick is, the music is so transparent, it’s a challenge to put together artfully.

The concert inspired by celestial bodies opened with Haydn’s Overture to Il mondo della luna or The World on the Moon, a cheery piece seldom heard in the concert hall. The performance was crisp, lively and clean with a bit of drama but all in good order.

It continued in the first half with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, which would be his final composition in the symphonic form before his untimely death at age 35. It also would become the most popular and arguably the greatest of his symphonies.

Its nickname had nothing to do with the planet or with astrology. It was dubbed “Jupiter” for its size and scope. At 30 minutes in length, it was really big. It also was really beautiful.

The opening, alternately martial and lyrical, was clean but not antiseptic

The soothing andante that followed featured an enchanting interplay of winds. The earnest minuet cleverly sets the stage for the finale, and Lehninger made the most of its arrival on the scene.

The finale, a large-scale fugue, is a wonder that has amazed music lovers for more than two centuries. In lesser hands, it would be an academic tutorial in counterpoint. In Mozart’s hands, it’s five themes worth of magnificent music.

Lehninger led a performance full of passion, yet played with such precision and poise, it was satisfying for both the heart and the head.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 7:00 AM
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