The 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.
Holst 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.