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- Holst: “Music, being identical with heaven, isn’t a thing of momentary thrills, or even hourly ones. It’s a condition of eternity.”
Gustav Holst remains a somewhat underappreciated figure in the world of symphonic and art music. The eclectic, 20th-century English composer was known for an efficiency and precision of writing partially reflective of his abiding interest in folk music and a generalized sense of writing with the performers’ perspectives in mind. However, over the course of his career Holst drew from a variety of compositional influences, from the towering presence of Richard Wagner in his early days to a keen fondness for the impressionism of Maurice Ravel and, eventually, streaks of imaginative tonal experimentalism not too far removed from Arnold Schoenberg.
In turn, Holst’s wide-ranging work was a large influence for prominent composers who came after him, such as Benjamin Britten. Indeed, in Alex Ross’ book The Rest Is Noise, the author claims Holst was instrumental in developing a “modern British repertory just as the glory of empire was fading.” Holst’s work also owed much to literature, such as the works of Walt Whitman and Max Müller, and the composer held a fascination for Hindu spirituality and astrology, the latter of which he referred to as his “pet vice.”
It was Holst’s interest in astrology that led to the creation of his most enduring and popular work, the seven-movement orchestral suite The Planets, which will be performed by the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Sept. 21-22 at the Pikes Peak Center.
Even if Holst’s overall collected works paint a more complex picture, it’s easy to see why The Planets remains so favored. Each movement reflects the astrological character of each planet — explaining the exception of Earth — which proves to be rich interpretive ground. The opening maelstrom of “Mars, the Bringer of War” reflects Holst’s horror at the pointless brutality of World War I (and proved heavy enough to be a suitable piece in the early repertoire of prog-rock royalty King Crimson), while the spellbinding, ethereal closing movement “Neptune, the Mystic” makes use of a live “fade out” ending and a hidden, wordless women’s chorus.
Still highly imaginative stuff, now a century removed from the suite’s orchestral premiere in 1918, and that doesn’t even touch upon the endlessly colorful orchestration that fills out the remaining movements. The Philharmonic’s performance of The Planets features guest performances from pianist Anne-Marie McDermott and members of the Colorado Springs Chorale, and the program is rounded out with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15. McDermott, incidentally, will be performing a “celebrity recital” of her own the following Tuesday, Sept. 24, at UCCS’ Ent Center for the Arts, with a program featuring the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Little introduction is needed for the Philharmonic’s subsequent weekend programming, which showcases a symphonic take on the music of Queen on Sept. 27-28 at the Pikes Peak Center.
Given Queen’s status as now universally beloved and culturally ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget that the band initially was the subject of critical disdain. Which, I suppose, just goes to show how much music writers know, right?
The box office success of Bohemian Rhapsody all but confirmed the band’s catalog as essentially canon, and while we’re still somewhat basking in the afterglow of the film’s success — which gave everyone another excuse to saturate the airwaves with Queen’s hits — an orchestral take on Queen is a generally exciting proposition, given the band’s freewheeling play with genres and campy, fun grandiosity. Imagine a fully scored take on A Night at the Opera’s most progressive track, “The Prophet’s Song,” or yet more majestic arrangements of the band’s latter-day offerings, like “Who Wants to Live Forever” and “A Kind of Magic.” Freddie would doubtless be radiant.
That said, I’m sure this symphonic pops offering will steer more heavily toward Queen’s biggest hits, and there’s not a thing wrong with that. Joining the full Philharmonic for their night of Queen is a six-piece rock band, vocalist Brody Dolyniuk and conductor Brent Havens.
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