Saturday, November 26, 2022

Holst’s “Planets” Illuminated at the Segerstrom


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa

Karen Kamensek.
The Pacific SO’s penultimate concert before the holiday season arrives to sweep everything before it, including serious music-making, gifted audiences over the second weekend in November with a program under the baton of guest conductor Karen Kamensek that had strong roots in Great Britain, but which in its second half breathtakingly opened out to the cosmos for a resplendent performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets, with added visuals.

In the first half, Caledonian sounds were cunningly evoked without any Scottish composers actually contributing. London-born Anna Clyne (b. 1980) has a strong concert presence, including performances locally with the Long Beach Symphony (reviewed here and here), and for this Pacific Symphony concert the opener was her PIVOT (why all-caps?), for string quintet and small orchestra. This slightly Ivesian aural collage, pivoting indeed between reels and somewhat boozy laments, was “inspired by [her] experiences at the Edinburgh Festival” last year, and at just five minutes was good fun that didn’t outstay its welcome.

Anna Clyne.
There’s no denying that Stefan Jackiw is a remarkably gifted player, his ability to conjure the subtlest imaginable effects from his Guadagnini violin being apparent right from his initial entry in the first half’s main work, Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy in E-flat major Op. 46. After a properly Grave statement of the introduction’s opening chorale by the Pacific Symphony brass, with the important harp part played by Principal Mindy Ball, it was simply impossible to pinpoint exactly where the ensuing silence ended and Jackiw’s quasi recitative began.

Max Bruch.
It forms a tribute to the memorability of Bruch’s themes and the inventiveness with which he deploys them across his expansive four-movement scheme that the work's 30+ minutes' duration hardly ever seemed over-extended, despite it having little of the internal contrast and tonal drama of a Romantic concerto or symphony. But though the virtuosic skill of this performance made it never less than enjoyable, Jackiw seemed somehow too refined a player for the work: this account of the Scottish Fantasy needed a little more—guts, heart, earthiness?—to come fully alive.

Stefan Jackiw.
As if underlining this, his choice of encore piece seemed more in keeping with his sensibilities: as unflamboyant in its delivery as it was unhackneyed in selection, Jackiw's account of the Largo third movement from J. S. Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005 for solo violin had such a sense of innigkeit and butterfly-wing fragility that had any audience member dropped a pin during its course, you would have heard it.

In titling his mighty orchestral suite The Planets Op. 32, H. 125, Gustav Holst rather kept his cake and ate it too, given that while the overall title and individual movement names are firmly astronomical, the latter’s subtitles clearly reference the composer’s explicit intent for the music to express the astrological significance of each planet.

Maestra Kamensek’s tempo for the opening of Mars, the Bringer of War (Holst’s marking is simply Allegro) was judiciously mid-way between the composer’s own headlong tilt in his recordings made in the 1920s, and the inexorable ominousness of such classics as Karajan’s and the last of Sir Adrian Boult’s five, made in 1979 at the age of 90. And for his visuals projected on the big screen above the orchestra, Adrian Wyard’s choices of imagery—firmly going down the astronomical rather than the astrological route—immediately proved to be as scientifically apt as they were dramatically impactful.

Closing in from distant shots to orbital views around the Red Planet and thence to computer-enhanced flyovers of its mountains and canyons, Wyard’s treatment hit the perfect moment of enhancement as Mars’ huge fortissimo organ-underpinned central climax arrived with the touch-down of the Curiosity rover, the ensuing quiet, haunted wanderings of low woodwind and strings, tapped on by the side-drum, being played against slow pans across the planet’s desolate landscapes.

Panorama of the Martian landscape from the Curiosity rover.
With Holst’s huge forces spread across the entire width of the Segerstrom Concert Hall’s platform, Ms. Kamensek’s pacing and judgment of dynamics, and the orchestra’s playing, were exemplary, even managing to make the final chord of Mars as impactful as it needs to be, given that Holst’s scoring of it eschews the horns and all of the woodwind except the bassoons and contra-bassoon, and only includes the timpani (but two sets) out of his copious percussion line-up.

Venus, the Bringer of Peace delivered rather less of that commodity than usual. Perhaps because this movement can sometimes seem a bit of a snooze after the tumult of Mars, Ms. Kamensek both tightened its Adagio breadth and let Holst’s pervasive piano and pp dynamics frequently rise to nearer mezzo-forte levels. Thus the opening horn solo—both statements of which begin piano and then decrescendo, counter-intuitively, as they step upward—signaled instead of peace what felt like a further call to minatory awareness.

Montage of Jupiter with its moon Io.
Given that views of the planet Venus from space show mostly just uniform cloud-cover, and that the only images from its surface are gritty close-ups from short-lived Soviet landers, Wyard’s visual treatment was necessarily imaginative, with speculative but vivid colors added to the imagery.

The next movement, Mercury, the Winged Messenger, also had less than a strictly scientific treatment, with the planet’s disc zipping back and forth across the screen like a lobbed tennis-ball. In terms of the music, though, the performance brought all the flickering delicacy and whiplash brilliance of Holst’s miraculous scoring into the sharpest focus.

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, was simply thrilling, both aurally and visually. The layered richness and complexity of the score, bodied forth in the marvelous acoustic of the Segerstrom Concert Hall, counterpointed with the intricate beauty of Jupiter’s surface taken from NASA’s Cassini mission, flying past on its way to Saturn, with views of its moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto further enriching the mix. Best of all, musically, was Ms. Kamensek’s “de-sanctifying” of Holst’s great tune from later hymnodic connotations by keeping it moving and thus integrating it more effectively with the surrounding fast music.

Huygens' descent to the surface of Titan.
The colossal sweep of Saturn’s rings, photographed from the Cassini orbiter, was the inevitable and appropriate accompaniment to Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, and as for Jupiter, Wyard varied the imagery with shots of the planet’s moons Titan and Rhea.

Here again was another audio-visual tour de force, as the massive, grinding heart of the movement was played against unique film of the descent to Titan’s surface in 2005 by the Huygens lander, after being released from Cassini.

The final two outer planets, Uranus and Neptune, have only been visited once each by a spacecraft, Voyager 2 in 1986 and 1989 respectively, and thus Mr. Wyard needed again to enhance the visual treatment, with stars, nebulae, and galaxies as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as computer simulations, added respectively to views of grey-green Uranus with its ring system (emphasizing the near-vertical orientation of the planet's equator, unique in the solar system), and Neptune’s enigmatic cloud-enshrouded blue orb, accompanied by its largest moon, Triton.

As for the performances, Uranus, the Magician captured all the movement’s dangerous swagger and bumptiousness, the only—and surprising—disappointment being the failure of Holst’s climactic ffff organ glissando to slash, as it ideally should, like a lightning strike through the orchestral texture: it was there right enough, but just a little too discreetly integrated.

In common with the other slow movements, Venus and Saturn, Ms. Kamensek kept Neptune, the Mystic, moving in accordance with its Andante marking, but not neglecting the ethereality of its scoring, delicately flecked with celesta and harps, nor yet, in the movement’s later stages, the pungent insertions by the rare bass flute and bass oboe. Over all floated the sounds of the women of the Pacific Chorale, perfectly integrated into the celestial texture from their vantage out of sight behind the left-hand choir stalls, from where, in the final minutes, they could be heard to proceed across to the right and then slowly recede into cosmic silence. A memorable evening indeed. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday November 17, 2022, 8 p.m.
Images: Top collage: BBC Sky at Night Magazine; Karen Kamensek: Todd Rosenberg/conductor website; Anna Clyne: Christina Kernohan/artist website; Stefan Jackiw: artist website; Bruch & Holst: Wikimedia Commons; Mars & Jupiter: NASA; Huygens descent: ESA.

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