in: News & Features

July 13, 2018

Pompous, Celestial, Celebratory, and Free

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The Boston Landmarks Orchestra’s 12th season of free concerts on the Esplanade wakens the Hatch Shell Wednesday at 7:00, during what is also the 90th summer that Bostonians have gathered on the Esplanade to hear live orchestral music since 1929, when Arthur Fiedler began the tradition. Landmarks’ music director Christopher Wilkins opens with suitably ceremonial Edwardian pomp in a program that concludes with a celebration of our best possible solar system.

In the centenary year of Holst’s The Planets, the Orchestra welcomes the St. Paul’s Girls’ School Choir, whose predecessors had originally provided the mysterious offstage wordless chorale sounds in the finale. Holst’s masterpiece explores the [supposed] astrological influence of the planets on human personality and behavior. Young musicians of ZUMIX perform an original work echoing Holst’s fascination with the human psyche. Other music inspired by the heavens includes Debussy’s bewitching Clair de lune

Rain Date: Thursday, July 19. If it rains on July 19 as well, the concert will be held at First Church Cambridge.

Wilkins’s program notes tell us:

Edward Elgar dedicated each of the five original Pomp and Circumstance marches to musical friends. The first—and best known of the five—was dedicated to Alfred Rodewald and the Liverpool Orchestral Society. The march’s middle section boasts one of music’s immortal melodies. Every American knows it, even those who have no idea where it comes from. Elgar knew its worth the moment he conceived it: “I’ve got a tune that will knock ’em—will knock ’em flat,” he enthused to a friend. The Pomp and Circumstance marches exude a deep British pride that wells up often in Elgar’s music, suggesting, as conductor Colin Davis put it, “nostalgia for a time that never existed.”

Elgar’s celebratory march gives us the chance to offer a proper British welcome to the visiting choir of St. Paul’s Girls’ School of London, one of the most admired youth vocal ensembles in Europe. The school was Gustav Holst’s musical home for nearly thirty years, as he held the position of Director of Music from 1905 until his death in 1934. The choir is currently on a US tour, led by Director of Music Leigh O’Hara (Holst’s successor!) and Deputy Director of Music Heidi Pegler. Holst gave this choir—made up of his own students—a featured role in the final movement of The Planets. We are thrilled to feature the same ensemble in our own performance tonight, on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of the premiere of The Planets. The girls are also featured—unaccompanied—in Festive Alleluiah by Lyn Williams, one of Australia’s leading directors of youth choirs. The work is “a vibrant celebration of the sound and power of treble voices.”

When we think of composers most able to summon nature’s power, Claude Debussy comes immediately to mind. His miniature masterpiece, Clair de lune (“Moonlight”), is the third movement of the Suite bergamasque for piano solo, inspired by a poem of Paul Verlaine. Tonight’s orchestration is by Debussy’s close friend, André Caplet. The Frenchman Caplet was an accomplished composer in his own right, and for a time he was also a Bostonian. From 1901–1904 he served as Music Director of the Boston Opera, located in the old Boston Opera House on Huntington Avenue.

The four-year partnership between the Landmarks Orchestra and Zumix in East Boston has yielded some of the most compelling collaborations in our history. Executive Director Madeleine Steczynski and Director of Operations Jenny Shulman lead a team that is deeply committed to making art a transformative force in young people’s lives. For the past three seasons, these collaborations have been captained by the Venezuelan-born composer, teacher, and performer Gonzalo Grau. Gonzalo’s artistic vision, his exceptionally diverse skill set, and his profound compassion for people from all walks of life have made him an ideal partner for us. My admiration has no bounds.

Here, Gonzalo and the four young composer-performers from Zumix describe the work they have created together:

Pegasus Promenade flowed from many sources. First, we were inspired by The Planets, and by Gustav Holst’s insights into the human archetypes defined by astrology. I wanted to portray these personality types as if they were all in an exhibition, imagining we could observe each from a distance, then meet in a common place… a place I like to call “Cosmos.” Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was my inspiration for this structure. Every time we return to the promenade we are changed a bit, as we keep walking under the influence of the previous encounter.

Pegasus Promenade expresses the romanticism of Aphrodite, the duality of Proteus, the protectiveness of Soteria, and the perfectionism and balance of the traveler Hermes. These ancient mythological characters represent a deep aspect of each of our young composers.

Gonzalo Grau

When writing this piece, I took the basic elements that make up a Libra: balance, romance, and creativity. I wanted everyone to feel as if they were walking on stars very happily. With the help of everyone offering ideas and creating lyrics, I think we made it possible to imagine that you carry the galaxies in the palm of your hand.

Jennifer Perez

This piece represents the Gemini’s nature of being two distinct personalities. One is quick-witted, fun and expressive, while the other has a tendency to get serious, thoughtful and restless. These twins are expressed through two instruments with different frequencies to capture their contrast. Although there are two contradictory elements, there is also a level of unison and harmony that encompasses one distinct being, as if the body is a vessel for opposing thought.

Rehanna Núñez

The main motif of this movement is influenced by the ideas of comfort and warmth associated with the Cancer zodiac sign. Along with it comes the theme of a youthful figure, which the Cancer feels the need to protect.

Eleasah Whittaker

The final movement of Pegasus Promenade embodies the characteristics of Virgo. The repetitive nature of the piano and the two different rhythms that work together cohesively is a representation of the Virgo tendency to be logical, perfect, and safe. With an additional layer of lyrics that explains how there is an immense amount of pressure to be “perfect,” it includes a level of juxtaposition to the rhythm, in which the Virgo character is trying to run away from its own inevitable perfect nature in a precise tempo.

BLMO performed in a past  season with Shakespeare Company

Tayler Núñez

PEGASUS PROMENADE Lyrics

APHRODITE

(Jennifer Perez)

Palms carry, Palms carry, Intertwining
Palms carry, Palms carry, Galaxies
Galaxies…

PROTEUS

(Rehanna Núñez)

Two halves born
In different places
Their souls create a dipole
Indecisive decisions constantly being made

Thinking positively negative
Causes a headache
Parting minds never really know where to go
They roam, search, explore

Yet they always meet
In the middle

SOTERIA

(Eleasah Whittaker)
[no lyrics]

HERMES

(Tayler Núñez)

Aligned like, Aligned like, A constellation
Spine carved like, Spine carved like, Atlas
Aligned like a constellation, Spine carved like Atlas

Aligned like, Aligned…
Aligned like a constellation

Spine carved like, Spine… Atlas
A Constellation…

The music of Holst’s The Planets has been used to conjure images of Martian canyons, crater-pocked moons of Uranus, Saturn’s multi-hued rings, and Venus’s murky clouds. It has evoked the serenity of the Morning Star, the gaseous blueness of Neptune, and the storm raging in Jupiter’s red eye. As a soundtrack it has accompanied spectacular images from the Cassini spacecraft, the space probes Galileo, Pioneer 10, Voyager 1 and 2, and the Hubble Space Telescope.

It would be hard to think any work of art—compared with Holst’s The Planets—which is so famously associated with something it has nothing to do with.

Holst had a powerful set of images in mind while composing The Planets, but they were not of the physical planets we know through modern astronomy or space exploration, nor was he thinking primarily of the Roman gods who gave their names to the planets of our solar system. His inspiration came instead from the planetary archetypes—concepts of form, energy, personality, and behavior—associated with the planets since antiquity. Holst was concerned not with outer space, but with inner space; with the psyche; and with essential aspects of experience that are common to all human beings. In a word, astrology.

I am deeply grateful to Richard Tarnas, author of a fascinating and ground-breaking book called Cosmos and Psyche, for his invaluable consultations with me, and for allowing me to use some of his language in formulating my—actually, his and my—descriptions below.

Mars

Holst’s Suite begins with Mars. Why not Mercury? After all, Holst surveys the inner planets first, then proceeds to Jupiter and Saturn, concluding with the outer planets, Uranus and Neptune. So why didn’t he begin with Mercury? The reason is, again, an astrological one. Mars is the initiator; the one who sets things in motion. Mars’s Greek name is Ares, the god of war. Ares is, in turn, associated with the constellation Aries, the Ram. Aries is the first sign of the Zodiac, and is associated with fresh vigor and new beginnings; and it marks the spring equinox. So for many reasons, we begin with Mars.

Holst decided—after much consternation—to assign epithets to each of his movements. The first movement, for example, he called, “Mars, the Bringer of War.” But in doing so, he may have unintentionally limited the understanding of the archetypes, each one of which embraces manifold meanings.

In a comprehensive view, we can say that Mars is the principle of energetic force; the impulse and capacity to assert, to act, and move vigorously; the tendency to experience aggressiveness, anger, conflict, and oppositional energy. Holst’s music is made up of short melodic cells dominated by pounding rhythms suggesting the beating of a drum, though every instrument of the exceptionally large orchestra—the largest ever mounted by this institution—participates at various times. There are five beats to these rhythmic cells, not the usual four, an aspect that seems to drive the aggression, as if the music’s aberrant gait keeps the listener uncomfortable and off-balance.

Venus alone can disarm Mars. She is the principle of desire, love, and beauty; the impulse and capacity to attract and be attracted; to create beauty and harmony; to engage in social and romantic relations, and sensuous pleasure. Holst’s gestural language and orchestration in this movement is fundamentally the opposite of Mars. Lyrical instead of percussive, the movement begins with a single melodic fragment in the solo horn. Low brass and trumpets are silent throughout. Flutes, solo strings, celeste and two harps create an atmosphere of utter serenity and tenderness.

For Mercury, Holst devises a quicksilver scherzo of fleeting textures and dexterous turns of phrase. The music is literally in two keys at once, representing the mercurial nature of the subject. Mercury is the principle of mind, thought, and communication; the ability to create, connect and mediate; to use language; to transport, translate, and transmit; the principal of Logos.

Jupiter is the principle of expansion, elevation, and generosity; the impulse to grow, improve and proliferate; the capacity for success, honor, and abundance; for optimism, exuberance, and “joviality.” The music is among Holst’s best known. It is vital and exuberant, and reveals a master’s hand at orchestration, including the colorful fireworks produced by rapid patterns on the strings, and the powerfully athletic unison brass melodies, sometimes effectively and implausibly matched note-for-note by the timpani. In the middle comes a noble tune that has enjoyed a distinguished life well beyond The Planets, as the hymn, “I Vow to Thee, My Country.

The music of Saturn unfolds with an economy and directness characteristic of Holst’s greatest music. Its slow tread and dirge-like character suggest the inexorable march of old age. Suddenly, bells clang out in alarm, creating a moment of panic and sending harmonic clashes throughout the orchestra. There follows a resting point marked by an attitude of acceptance. The movement ends at peace. The Saturnian nature is the principle of limits, structure, constraint, and necessity; of time, tradition, maturity, and mortality; of gravity and gravitas. The Greek name is Kronos, Time, the stern father of the gods.

Uranus begins with four powerful notes in trumpets and trombones, answered by four quick notes in the two tubas, finishing with a rapid-fire sequence in the timpani. The first four notes are, if you “spelled” them in German: G – S (the equivalent of E-flat in English) – A – and H (B-natural in English). If you remove from “Gustav H” every letter that does not have a corresponding note on the musical scale, you are left with exactly these letters. This is my theory alone, but Holst seems to have signed his name to this movement. It would make perfect sense, since Uranus is the astrological principal of creativity and innovation. Holst works in puzzles and coded language throughout The Planets (I’ve already mentioned the double key-signature of Mercury). There is a mischievousness to this movement, a Sorcerer’s Apprentice creativity-run-amuck quality. In astrology, Uranus is associated with change, rebellion, freedom, reform and revolution; with the unexpected break-up of structures; with sudden surprises, revelations and awakenings; with technological invention, experimentation and originality.

Holst’s music for the final movement, Neptune, is utterly transcendent. In astrology, Neptune is associated with the spiritual, the ideal and imaginative dimensions of life; with the subtle, formless, intangible, and invisible; with the timeless and infinite. The music is quiet throughout—pax vobiscum, Storrow Drive motorists!. In his own copy of the score Holst wrote, “dead tone, except solo clarinet.” Watery and nebulous effects are created by running, swirling figures in harps and strings.

Holst saves his most stunning effect for the final bars. Amidst these misty and otherworldly sounds, an unseen choir of treble voices sneaks in, imperceptibly at first. They harmonize with the onstage musicians as if communicating from the beyond, and then slowly recede until finally they are out of hearing. These are the voices of the St. Paul’s Girls’ School Choir—Holst’s own choir—drifting beyond the known universe, their oscillating chords resonating without end, as if continuing for eternity.

One of the most remarkable aspects of The Planets is the journey it describes. Over the course of the work, Holst’s language moves away from the duality of war and peace, to a far subtler musical idiom. He sets up and then reconciles heterogeneous elements, interweaving them in myriad ways, often creating a gentle interplay that offers a deep mysterious comfort. For this and other of his spiritually themed works, Holst may be considered alongside the great mystic poets, those who have interpreted human experience as inseparable from the mysteries of the cosmos.

See related review HERE

Christopher Wilkins was appointed Music Director of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra in the spring of 2011. Since then the orchestra has helped reaffirm founder Charles Ansbacher’s vision of making great music accessible to the whole community.

1 Comment

  1. Weds., July 18, 11 p.m. | What a magical evening – truly an honor to hear the premiere, and so many beautiful voices and tones. As the concert closed with mystical Neptune, the sky was framed with Venus, the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn all arcing across the southern sky from horizon to horizon. Looking at planets while hearing The Planets – what could be better? Thanks, and clear skies! – JR

    Comment by Joshua Roth — July 18, 2018 at 11:01 pm

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