Above: Alan Baer of The New York Philharmonic in a Chris Lee photo
Saturday May 28th, 2016 - Aside from Mars, I am not really a fan of the famous Gustav Holst work The Planets (composed in 1914-1916). I remember many years ago tuning in to a radio broadcast of the piece and finding my interest diminishing steadily once the spaceship left Mars for Venus; I never made it back to Earth.
Tonight, a chance to hear The Planets in concert at Geffen Hall provided an opportunity to test my earlier reaction. Under the baton of David Robertson, The New York Philharmonic's performance of this sprawling epic was nothing short of marvelous. But the music itself just doesn't reach me, beyond a surface appeal - and despite the composer's obvious skill in orchestration. And so - yet again - upon departing Mars, I felt lost in space.
The remaining six movements do have their very appealing passages, of course, but also their longueurs. The only time I truly connected with any of the music was when the theme of the hymn 'I Vow To Thee My Country' strikes up as Jupiter looms in the sonic heaven. The stay on Uranus seemed endless: not much going on there. I simply couldn't wait for this trip thru the solar system to end. Maestro Robertson had the huge forces doing his bidding to fine effect, and making a splendid sound; featured violin solos from Sheryl Staples were saving graces on this journey to nowhere.
But enough grumbling, lest I be mistaken for Bernie Sanders; the first half of the program was indeed thoroughly enjoyable.
Edward Elgar's Introduction and Allegro (composed in 1905) opened the evening; it's a beautiful piece and would make a great ballet score (maybe it's been done?). The composer gives a prominent role to a string quartet, setting them before the full string contingent of the orchestra. As this quartet consisted of Sheryl Staples, Lisa Kim, Cynthia Phelps, and Carter Brey, the playing was remarkable - I especially was entranced by a solo from the viola of Ms. Phelps. When the Philharmonic strings played en masse, the richness of sound was truly savorable.
The tall and slender Alan Baer then appeared with his silver tuba for John Williams' Tuba Concerto. This rather brief work (just over 15 minutes in length) was very pleasing from start to finish, for Mr. Baer's sound has a warm glow and a toothsome dark-chocolate richness in the lower range.
The opening passages made me think of a sea shanty: good-natured, a bit brusque, with fog-horn low notes along the way. Later the tuba converses with the French horn, and in the concerto's second movement, the tuba sounds deep phrases over a horn chorale before embarking on a polished cadenza.
The violins strike up. The oboe has a theme that is passed to the flute, and then the flute and tuba talk to one another. After another - briefer - tuba cadenza, fanfares sound and there is a cabaletta of sorts, with trumpets giving propulsion and the tuba singing some skittish coloratura. Harp and timpani have a part to play: another inventive mix on the composer's part. Swift-rising scales for the tuba herald a jovial conclusion.
Philharmonic audiences love it when artists from the orchestra step forward in featured roles; there was lovely enthusiasm for the string quartet after the Elgar, and Mr. Baer received hearty cheers from the crowd, as well as the admiring applause of his colleagues.