VSO 2017 Spring Festival
The Planets: An HD Odyssey

Date and Venue Monday, April 24, 2017 at 8pm | Orpheum Theatre

Conductor Bramwell Tovey Featured performers James Ehnes viola, Elektra Women's Choir directed by Morna Edmundson

Programme Gavin Higgins' Velocity; William Walton's Viola Concerto; Gustav Holst's The Planets

Reviewer John Jane


The Planets just might be the most popular serious music ever composed by an Englishman. When Gustav Holst composed the suite, a little over hundred years ago at the onset of WW1, he could not have foreseen how well his music would fit the soundtrack of interplanetary travel in the 21st century.

When performed with such vehemence and virtuosity, The Planets can be a thrilling journey. Monday night's VSO performance was nothing if not thrilling. Maestro Tovey brought out every single one of the multifarious moods and orchestral complexities in this monumental suite. The complete orchestra set up on stage in near darkness under a giant screen. Projected on this giant screen was The Planets–An HD Odyssey, initially commissioned by The Houston Symphony and created by Duncan Copp in cooperation with NASA. The film, paced to coincide with the length of each movement, provides a spectacular visual canvas. It merges the latest images returned from spacecraft combined with CGI to Gustav Holst’s mesmerizing soundtrack.

Mars, the Bringer of War, the first movement is ominous and menacing, aggressively interpreted with strident marching strings that became even more forceful as the red planet filled the screen. In Venus, the Bringer of Peace malevolence gives way to contemplation with a kind of surreal quality as we look upon a planet obscured by thick clouds. The translucent woodwind in Mercury, the Winged Messenger offer an evocation of speed as we sense of why the Romans named the planet after the swift-footed messenger god.

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, with its core anthem-like melody is bold and bouncy. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, with the slow, plodding double-bass in proximity to the nimble harp is deliberately melancholic. In Maestro Tovey’s reading of Uranus, the Magician we sense the alluring juxtaposed with the chaotic. Neptune, the Mystic, the final movement, is like a dream set to music. Too often pirated and plagiarized, the final moments allows the orchestra to give way to the unseen female voices of the Electra Women’s Choir, suggesting that when the music ends, the mission continues.

The concert actually started fifteen minutes later than scheduled, presumably to afford ticket purchasing late-comers to take their seats. Maestro Bramwell Tovey began the evening by announcing that Nicholas Wright is the choice to replace former concertmaster Dale Barltrop.

Born in Gloucester, England, just thirty-four years ago, Gavin Higgins gave the concert an energetic push-start with his suitably titled work Velocity. The piece evokes a sense of momentum with a fair dose of volume.

It was then the turn of James Ehnes to perform William Walton’s 1961 revised version of the Viola Concerto. There just isn’t enough opportunity to hear this instrument played with such understanding. The first movement, Andante comodo, is a soulful sonata played with precise lyrical mastery. The viola’s range lies between violin and cello and can be easily lost in a full symphonic structure. The second movement Vivo, con molto preciso, as its title may suggest is quick and lively with Ehnes’ consummate reading of the concerto impeccable.

The VSO Spring Festival is a celebration of the best of British music that also include the following performances: Songs and Serenades on Saturday, April 22; Henry V on Saturday, April 29; Enigma on Sunday, April 30 and concluding with Last Night of the Proms on Monday, May 1.

© 2017 John Jane