in: Reviews

October 23, 2015

BPO Pairs Two Mystical Classics


2001The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra opened its 2015-’16 programming last night with rousing performances of two works that had never before been paired for Boston audiences: Gustav Holst’s The Planets and Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. Conductor Benjamin Zander, rightly proud of the package, called the pieces “perfect companions.” Symphony Hall was packed and the youngish audience wildly enthusiastic over the Holst, perhaps less so for Zarathustra. (Strauss can be more difficult to penetrate on first hearing.) Only the opening sequence, which was appropriated for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, truly resonated with this crowd.

Zander did his usual peptalk beforehand, sharing infectious energy and humor, growling, snarling and demonstrating chords at a piano to translate Strauss’s emotions into music. “Zarathustra,” he intoned, “is the most amazing music Strauss ever wrote.” He acknowledged that a challenge was to master his “very thick textures.”

The music program is loosely based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s best-known work, from which Strauss chose eight passages out of the 80 written. Most have heavy metaphysical themes but in the composer’s hands the penultimate selection, “Dance Song,” breaks away into a charming Viennese waltz, which the strings played exuberantly. Some passages are “as good a representation of laughter as I can think of in music,” Zander said. He had told me that he initially had hesitations about trying to handle the Strauss masterpiece. “I wondered how we were ever going to wrestle the giant Zarathustra to the ground. I was wrong—the orchestra ate it up.”

Besides the clarity of Zander’s beat and the synchronization of the enlarged orchestra, several soloists stood out. Particularly noticeable were concertmistress Joanna Kurkowicz for her lyrical tone in solo passages and James David Christie at the Aeolian-Skinner organ. Christie provided subtle support and erupted in occasional dominant surges to add drama. The Symphony Hall organ was one of the reasons the Philharmonic sought to perform there. Both pieces contain substantial organ parts.

Strauss strived to produce emotional comfort in this work and, as Zander put it, created lush romantic harmonies with the strings divided into 16 voices and the “soft balm of the organ in the background.” To my mind, Zander’s players gave Strauss what he would have wanted.

After intermission, the complexion of the evening changed radically. The Planets, a suite of considerable originality and refinement, lifted off with thumping, marching “Mars”, while the orchestra, fired up for the event, let loose percussion and brass in fff. The cavernous space of Symphony Hall was filled with Philharmonic sound and Zander held the players together in the driving 5/4 rhythmic structure.

Holst’s inspiration came not from the planets nor their godly meaning to the ancients; he was interested in astrology and found material for what Zander calls the seven “character studies.” Thus Mars is the vigorous, aggressive model, while Venus (next in Holst’s sequencing) represents desire, love and beauty, treating us in stark contrast to lyrical horn passages and exquisite strings. Mercury offers lilting melodies, fleet of foot, elusive; Zander strived to make it “sound like magic.” Uranus was another romp, although Holst’s daughter, who was the 11-year-old Zander’s harmony and music theory teacher in England, professed to consider it inferior. The Philharmonic proved otherwise last night.

PlanetsHolst brings the seven-planet excursion to a soft landing with Neptune, the mystic body. He lets this final piece fade away with a celestial women’s choir offstage, for this occasion the Radcliffe Choral Society. The fadeout is crucial to the illusion of deep space, and Zander held the audience in thrall as the voices became inaudible. Then for a full minute he stood immobile on the podium in total silence. It was a precious moment.

After this reflective mood, the audience rose for a prolonged ovation. True to form, Zander wove his way through the orchestra picking out his soloists for a bow before finally taking his own.

Michael Johnson is a former Moscow correspondent who has written on music for the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, and other publications. He divides his time between Bordeaux and Brookline.


  1. A spectacular concert. The BPO provided an almost overwhelming experience. I’m not sure that these two pieces should be presented together soon again. It might be better to wait a few years. Great job by the BPO and maestro Zander.

    Comment by Brad lorimier — October 24, 2015 at 6:14 pm

  2. Agree..yes, spectacular in every way. Interesting to see and hear
    both works played together. Great that the Hall was full and the
    audience consisted of many young people who were quiet, attentive and enthusiastic.

    Comment by Ed Burke — October 25, 2015 at 1:50 pm

  3. It was a marvelous concert, but with mixed results. The Zarathustra wasn’t as impressive as it could have been: some of the brass missed important entries and glossed over some phrasings. The strings, especially towards the end, seemed flat. If anything, it seemed the piece was under-rehearsed. The Holst, however, was spot on. It sounded like a completely different orchestra. And to clarify, Maestro Zander didn’t hold the applause for a full minute after the Women’s Chorus disappeared; he waited just until the very last notes were no longer audible. I was seated in the second balcony and could hear clearly the last notes, however faint, being sung as the chorus faded in the distance. As soon as the last audible sounds vanished, Maestro Zander let his arms down. It was an astonishing effect!

    Comment by Daryl Bullis — October 26, 2015 at 2:55 pm

  4. Daryl rightly puts the record straight in the matter of the silence at the end of the Planets. Whereas Michael Johnson in his review claimed that I stood silently for a whole minute after the sound of the chorus had disappeared, it was, in fact, exactly as reported by Daryl: I heard the very last sounds die away and then moved immediately, whereupon the audience started its applause. As when a helium balloon disappears into the sky there might be different opinions amongst the bystanders as to when it can no longer be seen, so too, apparently with a dying sound – though a whole minute difference is rather startling! But there is a difference between an opinion and a fact. A hearing of the tape reveals that the facts were exactly as reported by Daryl Bullis.

    Now we come to the other part of his review – there are many opinions expressed, which is the point and the prerogative of a review. Daryl thought that he was listening to a different orchestra when the Planets started and indeed, in a sense, he was – though all 100 players performed both pieces. However, the textures of the Strauss, with its manifold doublings and extremely complex polyphony, are totally different from Holst’s pellucid sound world. It might be worth noting that “Also sprach Zarathustra” is considered by many the most virtuosic of all the Strauss tone poems, which is one of the reasons it is rarely played. It was not under-rehearsed – actually it got considerably more rehearsal time (and practice) than the much more familiar Planets – it is just one hell of a lot more difficult and it was our first and only performance. But, as I say, that was just an opinion and we don’t argue with opinions. However when Daryll writes: “some of the brass missed important entries and glossed over some phrasings” I cannot remain silent.

    After listening extremely carefully to the tape and having Assistant Conductor Thomas Jung, who has served as Bernard Haitink’s assistant in Europe, listen with score in hand, we were unable to detect a single missed entry, important or unimportant. Neither of us can discern what “glossed over some phrasing” means, so I will let that go. However, as with the disappearing sound of the women’s chorus, the tape recorder reveals the facts.

    I recognize that we do not expect of those who write comments in an on-line journal, the same knowledge or judgment that we expect of the actual critics. However, words in print can be hurtful and the brass players of the Boston Philharmonic, who are amongst the most seasoned and accomplished in the city, are justly proud of their professionalism. They do not make wrong entrances and the tape recorder is their witness.

    Can we therefore encourage people, before they submit their comments, on this increasingly significant site, to make a quick check to distinguish their opinions from the facts and, just before they press “send”, to make sure their facts are verifiable.

    In closing might I mention that, in my opinion, the strings of the Boston Philharmonic outdid themselves, producing a characteristically rich, full and flexible Straussian sound throughout the performance right up to the ineffable end and that the flutes and oboes achieved a near miracle of pure intonation in the final bars – a rare feat, even for the greatest orchestras.

    Comment by Ben Zander — October 30, 2015 at 10:40 am

  5. Maestro Zander – Please accept my humble apology. I did not intend to cast my impressions as hard fact. I recall that evening feeling that something was unusually amiss with the Strauss and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Since I do not have the luxury of hearing a recording of that evening’s performance I cannot go back to elucidate what I thought I heard. I know the BPO is not under-rehearsed; it was just an impression I had to help explain what I may have been hearing. I was seated in the upper second balcony and it’s possible (even likely) that my ears failed me during several crucial passages.

    In short, I unequivocally retract my comments about the BPO’s performance of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. The BPO under your stellar direction is a world-class orchestra whose concerts I look forward to each and every season.

    Comment by Daryl Bullis — November 2, 2015 at 12:29 pm

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