RSO Blog: Preparing for The Planets

Steve Larsen

When the brand-new Rockford Symphony played its first concert on May 20, 1934, one of the works not included on the program was Gustav Holst’s The Planets. There were many good reasons for its omission. In length, difficulty and the large orchestra required, it was most certainly beyond the capability of a fledgling orchestra. Or maybe the RSO was waiting for Holst to add Pluto, discovered in 1930?

Holst died five days after the RSO’s debut concert, but there never would have been a Pluto movement, because his interest in the planets was astrological, not astronomical. But he’d certainly be happy to know that in the ninety-six years since its completion, The Planets has not only become one of the most popular works in the orchestral repertoire, it has done so in large part by connecting its listeners’ imaginations to the mystery of those distant spheres who, like our own Earth, have dutifully orbited our sun for billions of years.

Astronomer José Francisco Salgado saw this as an opportunity to unite music and visual arts to teach audiences about science. Using spectacular photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, historical illustrations, images from NASA and the European Space Administration and his own science visualizations, Dr. Salgado produced and directed Gustav Holst’s The Planets, a critically-acclaimed film to accompany live performances of the suite. Premiered in 2008, it was so popular that it inspired Dr. Salgado to form a not-for-profit foundation to promote science education through art, and has led to other successful multimedia ventures (stay tuned: there will be more coming in future seasons!). So beautifully and seamlessly are the visuals married to the music that it’s hard to believe Holst didn’t have them in mind as he composed.  I smile to myself as I imagine what the attendees of that May 20, 1934 concert would have thought had they been in the Coronado Theatre.

This is the final concert of our War and Remembrance series, marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s end, the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. I chose The Planets for two reasons; it was mostly written during World War I, and was among the last European works of the early 20th century written for large orchestra (which simply weren’t practical after the war, given the incredible destruction). But as you listen to the ominous rhythms of Mars, Bringer of War, keep in mind that it was largely composed in 1913, and thus is more prophetic than descriptive!

The first piece on this season’s “must-do” list was Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, written for a young Austrian pianist who lost his right arm fighting on the Eastern Front in the First World War. Determined to resume his career, he commissioned several composers to write works for the left hand alone; the most famous of these was the concerto written by Maurice Ravel.  To play it for us we have engaged a brilliant young pianist who has two arms but only one name: Ji. For his fellow Koreans, one name is enough: Ji is a cross-cultural hero in his home country, and I think you’ll see why. Our program opens with exhilarating music written for a 1942 English propaganda film about the fabled British Spitfire fighter plane. Just as Aaron Copland became the voice of America’s spirit in the 20th century, William Walton had the knack for musically expressing Brittania, which though under siege still maintained an exuberant optimism and determination to prevail.

Enjoy! Thanks for coming, and we look forward to seeing you next season!

Larsen Signature

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