KSO This Week: Orbits, Oops, and Onomatopoeia

Gustav Holst’s The Planets
“Handel’s” Viola Concerto in B Minor (Henri Casadesus)
Aaron Jay Kernis’s Musica Celestis
Knoxville Symphony Orchestra on Thursday and Friday, March 22/23
Guest conductor: Daniel Meyer; Viola soloist: Mary Persin

UPDATE: My review of this concert is online here

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I am forced to admit that in my musical lifetime I have been somewhat of a poo-poo-er of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. I think much of my lack of respect derived from the fact that it seemed every orchestra organization that could muster the instrumental forces would give it a try, often complete with seemingly obligatory projected outer space images, and with equally questionable musical results. My last hearing, I recall, came from a neighboring small town’s barely professional orchestra in which the women’s chorus managed somehow to enter in the wrong key.

It is for those reasons that I have, unfortunately, unconsciously relegated The Planets to the category of over-popularized works that have mass appeal due to the impressive scale of forces,  the rich textural colors in the orchestration, and the hints at astrological mysticism. Over-popularization, though, is hardly the fault of a work’s creator. However, the more deeply I delved into Holst’s biographical information, the more I realized that he would have been someone with which I would probably have had a lot in common. Holst was inspired as a child it seems, as I was, by the large scale choral works of J.S. Bach. Later, he became a devotee to Richard Wagner’s music having heard Götterdämmerung at Covent Garden conducted by Gustav Mahler, becoming entranced by its tonal depth.

At some point in his student days, Holst followed Wagner in another way–vegetarianism. Wagner had been an advocate of vegetarianism as had other well-know figures in literature and arts such as George Bernard Shaw. Unlike today, a turn-of-the-century vegetarian would probably have had serious nutritional deficiencies which, no doubt, was deleterious to Holst’s already frail physical condition.

In her biography of her father, Imogen Holst stated that he hated incomplete performances of The Planets, but was resigned to the fact. Adrian Boult conducted the  orchestral premiere of the work in September of 1918 in Queen’s Hall with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra in a semi-public affair, but with only five of the seven movements–Mars, Mercury, Saturn, Uranus, and Jupiter. A true public concert occurred in February of 1919 by the Royal Philharmonic Society conducted by Boult. The full seven movement suite was first performed in November, 1920, by the London Symphony Orchestra under Albert Coates.

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Aaron Jay Kernis’s Musica Celestis began life as a string quartet; Kernis adapted the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1 from 1990 into a separate piece for string orchestra, adding a line for double bass. “I don’t particularly believe in angels,” Kernis stated, “but found this to be a potent image that has been reinforced by listening to a good deal of medieval music.” This KSO performance will be my first live hearing.

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Venturing off the celestial and planetary realm will be a “Handel’s” Viola Concerto in B Minor. Of course, the work isn’t by Handel at all but an attempt by Henri Casadesus and his Society of Ancient Instruments to pass off a work of his own creation in the style of G.F. Handel as an original. The fact that it is a spurious work, though, doesn’t really detract from its pleasant and entertaining inventiveness.

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