Classical Music

Walking the Astral Plane With the Colorado Symphony

The Colorado Symphony performs Holst’s The Planets on Friday, March 25, Saturday, March 26 and Sunday, March 27.
The Colorado Symphony performs Holst’s The Planets on Friday, March 25, Saturday, March 26 and Sunday, March 27. Amanda Tipton
The Colorado Symphony is set to illuminate Boettcher Concert Hall this weekend for a three-night performance of Gustav Holst’s existentially gripping masterpiece, The Planets, with principal conductor Peter Oundjian at the helm. The performance will be prefaced with two other compositions — The Oak, by Florence Price, and “Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16,” by Edvard Grieg.

Opening the night will be The Oak, which Oundjian calls “a beautiful little tone poem that nobody ever plays.” He continues, “I think it’s fantastic. ... Florance Price was an absolutely brilliant African-American female composer born in the late 1800s. I absolutely love to program her music because it’s so beautiful. It’s quite intense, quite brooding, but also very dramatic.”

Next up will be Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16,” which Oundjian notes is one of the great masterpieces for piano that highlights the virtuosic qualities of its performer. This turn, it will be played by Canadian prodigy Jan Lisiecki, who has been recording for the legendary German record label Deutsche Grammophon since he was fifteen years old.

As Grieg’s piece comes to a close, so begins the highlight of the night: The Planets. Its impact transcends the classical realm, and it's been cited as an influence on artists such as Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Black Sabbath.

The history of the piece is one of self-reflection and the metaphysical nature of humanity. Holst had become cynical about his lack of success as a composer and decided to take a vacation to Spain with writer Clifford Bax and one of his benefactors, British musician Balfour Gardiner. The inspiration for The Planets started with conversations Holst had with his friends about astrology during this trip.

Holst quickly became obsessed with the pseudoscientific practice and, according to Bax, became a remarkably skilled interpreter of horoscopes, entertaining his friends with the predictions he made through interpreting the cosmos. In the program notes for the work's public premiere in 1919, Holst strongly maintained that it has nothing to do with the mythological or astronomical nature of the planets, but rather the astrological significance of them. “If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient," he noted.

"Interestingly, out of each piece, it creates a fabric that suggests the development of man," Oundjian explains. "A kind of man from his most primitive state to its most enlightened.”

The Planets consists of seven contrasting movements, as exemplified by the first two. The opening movement, “Mars: The Bringer of War,” is defined by its militant nature, with clashing keys and bombastic rhythms. “It’s so poignant to even talk about right now since it’s one of the most frightening pieces ever written,” Oundjian says. “It epitomizes the intensity, drama and tragedy of war. Then it immediately transitions into ‘Venus,’ who is the goddess of love and the bringer of peace, innocence, and beauty."

The following movements — "Mercury," "Jupiter," "Saturn," "Uranus" and "Neptune" — all contrast with each other and represent a different aspect of human nature. For instance, while Holst calls "Jupiter" “The Bringer of Jollity,” Oundjian sees it as being much more. It’s about loyalty, pride and honor, he says, and represents the prime of life and the awakening of the human spirit. In contrast, he notes, “Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age" is about wisdom and the power of experience.

"While Holst’s following compositions never quite hit a vein in the canon of classical music, the impact of [The Planets] cannot be understated," Oundjian concludes. “The excitement for this piece has never died down. Sometimes there are fads; things come and go as a fashion. The Planets has always been ‘in fashion,’ and deservingly so.”

The Colorado Symphony performs Holst’s The Planets on Friday, March 25, Saturday, March 26, and Sunday, March 27, at Boettcher Hall in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Times vary based on the day of the show. Tickets are $15-$89. Get tickets and details here.
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