Gustav Holst's "The Planets" is one of the most popular of all English orchestral works. But it is rarely heard in its complete, seven-movement form because the final section, "Neptune, the Mystic," employs a wordless women's chorus, with attendant extra preparation logistics, to enhance the music's sense of the timeless void of space.
Kazuyoshi Akiyama, a popular and perennial guest conductor of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, decided to do something about this. For his guest appearance with the orchestra on Tuesday he devoted the entire second part of his program to the full expanse of "The Planets."
It's a work for which he obviously feels a great affinity, revealed in the fact that his shaping of each movement maximized the music's qualities of mood setting, even storytelling.
In "Mars, the Bringer of War" the steady, churning pulse, ruthless sense of unfeeling power and final deep-growling chord made quite clear the composer's message about the brutal impersonality of war.
The contrasts in Akiyama's conception of "The Planets" were poignant, nowhere more so than in the abrupt segue from war to the spacious horn and flutes, solo violin and oboe lines, and delicate Holstian ostinato lines that infused "Venus, the Bringer of Peace." Also light and gossamer, but energized by a scampering, capricious mood, was the little scherzo called "Mercury, the Winged Messenger."
A scholar of English folk song, Holst only once used this influence in "The Planets," in the central episode called "Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity." Under Akiyama, the opening slashes of brilliant brass coloration led compellingly into the central folk-flavored theme, presented in a very compellingly developed long crescendo of power and emotion, and capped by loose, almost Ravelian rippling lines running through the orchestra, freely flowing but cleanly articulated.
"Saturn, Bringer of Old Age" was built on an elemental ostinato figure, its lyrical lines mostly gestural and suggestive until larger ostinato figures assumed thematic importance. Akiyama put these vague, wispy musical ideas together with surprisingly effective logic.
The brass section, which was in top form throughout, had a field day in "Uranus, the Magician," with its mix of hocus-pocus and martial flavors and its huge diminuendo from full orchestra to solo harp setting the stage for the final "Neptune, the Mystic."
Spacious and very austere, this movement also deals more in gestural tone painting than in defined themes, with the Chautauqua Women's Chorus joining about midway and sounding more like another esoteric instrument than voices, moving in slowly undulatory lines. Akiyama pointed up the distant, cosmic qualities of this music very effectively as it wafted off into the void, but did conclude it with a definite cutoff rather than the customary fade-out.
The program had opened with a finely detailed Mozart Symphony No. 36 in C ("Linz"), during which Akiyama's phrasing and shaping often gave the music a conversational quality. It was a deft and satisfying performance in which delicacy and refinement were achieved without loss of body and substance.