'The Planets': sound and sight


With the exception of vintage silent movies, which leap to life when accompanied by an orchestra, there are few visual products that make a perfect match for a symphonic score. One or the other component, but most likely the musical one, is bound to suffer.

And so it was last night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented Gustav Holst's popular showpiece The Planets with introductory remarks for each movement by Baltimore's own celestial frequent flyer, NASA astronaut Thomas Jones, and a film of each orbiting body in question.

The mix of NASA footage from robotic space flights and computer-generated graphics was interesting, if repetitive. And Jones, a natural speaker, made informative remarks (as well as a plug for continued exploration of the solar system). But none of this could quite overcome two little problems.

For one thing, the nature of the presentation - talk, music, talk, music - thoroughly destroyed the flow and architecture of Holst's work. In this disjointed state, The Planets became secondary to the proceedings. Not a good thing.

The other problem is more fundamental. This music is not about the actual planets, their topographical or atmospheric features. Holst attempted to reflect the astrological significance of these spheres and the characteristics given to them by humans. Turning the score into the soundtrack for a galactic travelogue pushes the limits of artistic license.

That said, the orchestra did some impressive playing last night under the poised guidance of the BSO's assistant conductor, Lara Webber. She went for a leaner sound than music director Yuri Temirkanov does; the resultant transparency allowed the subtler side of Holst's instrumental coloring to shine through nicely.

Webber could have drawn out the Edward Elgar-like passages of the Jupiter movement a little more, or put a greater dash of mercurialness in Mercury, but her sense of momentum and careful balance of forces proved consistently effective.

There was particularly vivid playing from the woodwinds, lots of elegant sounds from the strings (who also did highly sensitive work in the concert opener, Suite No. 3 of Ottorino Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances).

A few intonation slips aside, the women of the BSO Chorus sang the haunting off-stage refrain in the Neptune movement sensitively. Perhaps a way can be found to make them just a bit more audible tonight and tomorrow.

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