LatestLife Style

Review: The Philharmonic Feasts on ‘The Planets’

Holst’s “The Planets” is one of the Thanksgiving feasts of classical music. It seduces with variety of color and texture — just as tangy cranberry compote refreshes after buttery mashed potatoes — but tends to leave you overstuffed.

I’ve never heard it when it wasn’t at least a little too much. But, played with vigor by the New York Philharmonic under Dima Slobodeniouk on Wednesday evening at David Geffen Hall, it didn’t have me moaning with overindulgence, as some “Planets” performances do. It felt like an ideal way to ring in a holiday that’s all about bounty.

There was punchiness in “Mars” and genuine playfulness in “Mercury,” and Slobodeniouk was agile in guiding the orchestra through the hairpin transitions of “Jupiter.” That section’s noble hymn theme was less strings-heavy than usual, flowing with ease.

That Ligeti’s “Atmosphères” is, like “The Planets,” indelibly associated with the extraterrestrial is due less to its title than to its inclusion (without its composer’s permission) in the soundtrack of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Written in 1961, not quite half a century after Holst’s tone poem, the sumptuously eerie “Atmosphères” on Wednesday felt a bit like the son or grandson of “The Planets.” Ligeti’s queasily unsettled sound world seemed a direct descendant of the stunned stillness at the start of “Saturn,” the uneasy simmering after the march drops out in “Uranus” and the gaseous, hovering mystery of “Neptune.” Neither of these works was played with super-polish at Geffen, but under Slobodeniouk both had vibrant drama.

Those tried and true “Planets” aside, this wasn’t a concert of chestnuts. The orchestra revived “Atmosphères” to cap its commemorations this fall of Ligeti’s centennial; it hasn’t presented the piece (except as it’s excerpted in the “2001” score) since 1978. And it is performing Julia Perry’s 1951 “Stabat Mater” this week for the first time ever.

Perry’s brief “Study for Orchestra” was, in 1965, the first music by a Black woman to be played on a Philharmonic subscription program. It was brought back last year, but the “Stabat Mater,” scored for strings and a vocalist, is a far more powerful work. Heated yet subtle and restrained, the piece’s 10 sections on a Latin text, lasting about 20 minutes in all, chart an intimate drama whose moments of grandeur are all the more effective given the overall modesty.

In the short prelude, light yet pungent pizzicato plucks — amid brooding low strings and an elegiac solo violin — movingly evoke Jesus’s mother’s tears without feeling too obvious. Throughout, Perry gives both voice and orchestra an appealing combination of Neo-Baroque angularity and post-Romantic warmth. The quivering, high-pitched flames of “the fire of love” near the end are reminders that this piece and “Atmosphères” date from the same era.

The mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges sang with oracular authority in the somber vocal lines, rising to flashes of intensity. There were passages in which a more encompassing, contralto-style richness in the low register would have filled out this music. But Bridges’s focused tone was just right for Perry’s poignant austerity.

The violinist Sheryl Staples, in the concertmaster chair, played with sweetness and eloquence in both the “Stabat Mater” and Holst’s “Venus.” That section of “The Planets” also featured a beautifully mellow flute solo by Alison Fierst, leading into rhapsodic lines from the orchestra’s longtime principal cello, Carter Brey.

Oh, and for at least one night, the “fireflies” — the lights over the Geffen stage that do a flickering up-and-down dance before concerts, in corny imitation of the chandeliers that rise before curtain at the Metropolitan Opera next door — were stilled.

Might they stay that way forevermore? That would be something to be thankful for.

New York Philharmonic

This program repeats through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan;

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button