Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
Gustav Holst’s The Planets

Dates and Venue Saturday, June 7 2014 at 8pm & Sunday, June 8 2014 at 2pm | Orpheum Theatre

Conductor Bramwell Tovey Featured performers Elektra Women's Choir, Christie Reside - flute

Programme Holst’s The Planets, opus 32, Nielsen’s Flute Concerto, Tovey's Songs of Envious Time

Reviewer John Jane


The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra complete their series of Symphony Sundays with “a quick dart around the Solar System” (part of Maestro Tovey’s intro). The Planets may be the most popular serious music ever composed by an Englishman. When Gustav Holst composed the suite (a 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. The seven movements each portray the astrological traits of the seven known planets at the time, in order of distance from the Earth. Pluto is noticeably absent from the suite; technology at the time did not allow the planet’s visibility, and it was not known to exist.

Holst’s monumental orchestral suite calls for a full orchestra with additional reinforcements of a bass oboe, a contra bassoon, a celeste and a bank of seven French horns. Maestro Tovey hit a perfect balance with the orchestra, not allowing strings and brass to overshadow each other.

Mars, the Bringer of War, the first movement is ominous and menacing, with strident marching strings. 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 juxtaposed with the nimble harp is deliberately depressing. Uranus, the Magician, might have been alternately titled ‘the Bringer of Chaos’. Neptune, the Mystic, the last movement has a surreal quality, like a dream set to music. In the final moments the orchestra gives way to female voices, suggesting that even if the music ends, the mission continues.

Maestro Tovey began the concert program with his own composition, Songs of Envious Time. The work is written for women’s choir and chamber orchestra and professes a central theme of love. Aubade, The first song has text provided by William Davenant seventeenth century poem, with flute and piccolo evoking a wake-up call by the larks. Corrina is pastoral with text provided by Robert Herrick. The third and final song, An Epitaph on Husband and Wife, which the composer dedicates to his parents, is set to a poem by Richard Crayshaw.

For Carl Nielsen's agreeable Flute Concerto, principal flautist Christie Reside steps forward to the front of the Orpheum stage as featured soloist. The program informs us that it was originally written for Holger Gilbert Jespersen. Nielsen must have known the musician well; there is a lyrical refinement in flute's key lines that requires a nuanced delicacy. Ms Reside never loses control, nor does she feud with the timpani and bass trombone accompaniment.

© 2014 John Jane