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The Greensboro Symphony Orchestra closed out the 2008-2009 season with a multi-media performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Accompanying the venerable music was a slideshow of “high quality NASA photographs taken by various deep-space probes, satellites and telescopes and all new, NASA-approved animations, including video of the Mars Rover rocketing through space and soft landing on Mars.”
The Planets calls for a huge orchestra (the Greensboro Symphony was augmented by members of the Winston-Salem Symphony) including 7 horns, 6 percussionists, two harps and a wide variety of unusual instruments such as the contra-bassoon. The seven movements that make up the piece are musical representations of their corresponding mythological significance.
Thus, the opening “Mars, the Bringer of War,” is a driving, menacing composition in the asymmetrical 5/4 meter. As Bruce Kiesling accurately states in the Program Notes, the music’s character was not missed by John Williams, who co-opted crucial aspects of the movement for his score to Star Wars. The large audience may have been looking at pictures of Mars, but they were thinking Darth Vader.
The more gentle “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” featured fine solo playing by concertmaster John Fadial and principal cellist Brooks Whitehouse. Celesta (sparklingly played by Nancy Johnston) and harp were prominent in “Mercury, the Winged Messenger.”
The most famous movement, “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” contains some of the most hummable tunes in the work. “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” is a slow funeral march while “Uranus, the Magician” provides a playful relief. The finale, “Neptune, the Mystic,” is mysterious. This character was brought to the fore by the wordless singing of the women from the Choral Society of Greensboro.
GSO Music Director/Conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky provided a dynamic presence, urging the huge orchestra to overwhelming climaxes and helping the musicians to negotiate the tricky rhythms. There were a few bobbles here and there, but the audience’s focus was on the pictures from space.
The concert also served as a memorial to Greensboro composer Russell Peck, who died earlier this year. The GSO has performed Peck's works over 100 times (Thursday night’s was the 118th, to be exact). To honor Peck, who had long been interested in eradicating starvation in the world, the GSO collected non-perishable food items to benefit the Salvation Army.
Peck’s eleven-minute "Peace" Overture was a fitting mark of respect. The work is a musical tribute to those who struggle against conflict, specifically for the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. The work opens in a somber and stern manner, but eventually gives over to more happy strains. The large orchestra supplied the massive sound that was sometimes required, and the percussion ensemble was again on display.
Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C Major was also on the program, assumedly because it is subtitled “Jupiter,” thus fitting in with the “Planets” theme of the night. The symphony was the last written by the composer and apparently he never heard it performed. It is a masterpiece of perfection and is brimming with optimism.
The four movements are laid out in the classical plan — fast, slow, dance, fast — and some of the music (especially in the finale) shows Mozart’s brilliance in contrapuntal writing, that is, music made up of many independent lines. And he was extremely generous with tunes for the winds, which the GSO delivered with delight.
To say that the performance of the Mozart was perfunctory would be too strong. Perhaps it was simply a matter of being a curious bedfellow with Holst and Peck. But in the end, the playing seemed lacking in spirit and depth.
Many telescopes were on hand at War Memorial Auditorium to allow audience members to look at the cosmos during intermission and after the concert. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate. Hopefully the sky will open up Saturday night, when the performance is to be repeated at 8:00 p.m.