Gustav Holst composed his orchestral suite The Planets in the 1910s, giving each movement a theme derived from astrology and Greek and Roman mythology: “Mars, the Bringer of War” … “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” … “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” … “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” … “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” … “Uranus, the Magician” … “Neptune, the Mystic.” (Pluto was not discovered until 1930.)
When the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra performed “The Planets” at Prudential Hall at NJPAC in Newark on Oct. 11 — in the first of three concerts that weekend that kicked off the NJSO’s 2019-20 season — it added an element that Holst could not have imagined: Duncan Copp’s 2010 film, “The Planets: An HD Odyssey,” which features strikingly beautiful NASA footage of the seven planets Holst wrote music for, edited so that each planet would be seen as the music Holst composed for the it is played.
With NJSO music director Xian Zhang conducting — and the Newark Voices choir, conducted by Heather J. Buchanan, adding ethereal majesty with their appearance during the “Neptune” section — the sound was glorious, and the film was certainly fascinating. And it was a nice touch for the NJSO to begin its season in such an unconventional and adventurous way.
That said, I’m not sure that the end result was more than the sum of its impressive parts.
There really isn’t much about the way that the planet Mercury looks, for instance, that is evocative of a winged messenger, or the sprightly music that Holst composed for this section. A planet, in and of itself, is something of a Rorschach test. You can see all different kinds of things in it. Holst let his imagination go, and came up with something timeless; it’s a stretch to try to see his music reflected in the planets’ physical realities.
Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Hiraeth, played in the first half of its concert (making its NJSO premiere) with its own accompanying film (by Mark DeChiazza), was less grand, of course. But it made for a more cohesive multimedia experience, with DeChiazza’s evocative footage of Snider’s hometown of Salisbury, N.C. (featuring members of her own family), creating a sense of nostalgia that complemented Snider’s yearning music. It almost felt as if we were watching home movies, with the action slowed down and the small-town images shot in such a way as to make them seem abstract and universal.
The concert began with its (and, by extension, the NJSO season’s) own commencement anthem, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, March No. 1, which is well known because of its widespread use in high school and college graduation ceremonies. And it ended with a lovely encore — Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’ ” — performed with Newark Voices and chosen, Zhang said, because Holst and Williams were lifelong friends.
The New Jersey Symphony’s next concerts will take place Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m. at BergenPAC in Englewood; Nov. 1 at 8 p.m. at the Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University; Nov. 2 at 8 p.m. at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank; and Nov. 3 at 3 p.m. at Prudential Hall at NJPAC in Newark. Markus Stenz will conduct and Juho Pohjonen will be featured on piano, and the program will include Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.73; Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op 16; and Jean-Féry Rebel’s “Chaos” from Les Élémens). Visit njsymphony.org.
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