Mark Gresham | 3 FEB 2024
The English astrologer, author, and theosophist Alan Leo (1860 – 1917) is widely considered “the father of modern astrology.” Born William Frederick Allan, he took the name of his sun sign, “Leo,” as his pseudonym. His work and influence in astrology initiated a shift toward a more psychologically oriented horoscope analysis, away from predicting specific events and favoring trends of potential life experience.
English composer Gustav Holst (1874 – 1934) was a huge fan of Alan Leo’s astrological writings. In particular, Leo’s The Art of Synthesis (1912) and What is a Horoscope? likely influenced Holst when he composed The Planets between 1914 and 1917.
Rather than astronomical essays, Holst’s suite offers astrological portraits of seven planets of the solar system and their psychological allegories, perhaps even personifications: Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Holst left out the two luminaries, the Sun and the Moon; humans had not yet discovered Pluto; and of course, as the point from which astrological observations are measured and delineated, the Earth is not included. Holst’s portrayals fit quite nicely with Leo’s “modern” approach to astrology as a key to the human psyche.
Immensely popular with audiences, The Planets comprised the second half of Thursday night’s sold-out performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by New Zealand-born guest conductor Gemma New. The first half was devoted to two somewhat programmatically relevant contemporary works: Rainphase (2015) by New Zealand composer Salina Fisher and Losing Earth (2019) by American composer Adam Schoenberg, a concerto for percussion and orchestra which featured ASO principal percussionist Joseph Petrasek as soloist.
While the Sun and Moon are absent from Holst’s work (one could wittingly program Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute with it to make up for that), these two contemporary works address the missing human point of reference, the Earth. And just as Thursday’s program did, we shall begin here with them.
Although a purely orchestral work, Fischer’s Rainphase shares at least some affinity with Eric Whitacre’s choral work Cloudburst, which uses mass manualism (finger snaps, handclaps, stomps, and slapping body parts) to emulate the sound of a rainstorm amid a vocal setting of a text by Octavio Paz — a sound-painting technique that choirs have also adopted to introduce choral arrangements of the 1982 hit song, “Africa,” by the American rock band Toto.
Beginning with a misty, gossamer opening of long and atmospheric sounds, Fisher starts to introduce an emulation of the sound of rain and its complex colors and rhythms, but in far more calculated detail than either of the choral examples listed above, which depend upon creating their stochastic blocks of sounds. Not depending on that technique of manualism, Fischer succeeds in evoking the beauty and complex rhythms of rainfall in Wellington, New Zealand, through the broad and subtle palette of orchestral color available from the orchestra. The 10-minute piece rises slowly to achieve its climactic apex near the end, followed by a relatively quick subsiding to the quiet final release.
At nearly two-and-a-half times the duration of Fischer’s water-centered piece, Adam Schoenberg’s percussion concerto, Losing Earth, has an extramusical focus on our terrestrial sphere, not the weather of the moment or day, but the more significant and controversial issue of global climate change.
In his notes for Losing Earth, Schoenberg refers to percussion as “the most earthy and grounded of instruments.” He also notes how percussionists played a central role as storytellers within the oral histories of ancient cultures worldwide, second only to the human voice (with dancers completing the core trinity of expression, one might rightly add). One could suggest Schoenberg’s choice of percussion for both the featured solo (or one-person concertino, given Petrasek’s large battery of various instruments) and having a prominent place within the ripieno (the full orchestra) serves as an homage to both that cultural history and the planet itself.
The interaction of solo and orchestral percussion plays a role in Schoenberg’s concerto, especially in the somewhat theatrical opening where four marching-sized bass drums (about half the diameter of a large orchestral bass drum) played thunderous isolated unisons with significant pauses between, from four parts of the hall: two on stage left and right, and another pair positioned far left and right up on the loge (first balcony), while Petrasek processed down the right aisle past the audience, playing a cluster of marching drums on a carrier frame, and ascended the steps to the stage.
(Oddly enough, a similar theatrical scenario opened an ASO performance of Tan Dun’s Water Concerto some years ago, but with multiple “waterphones” spatially deployed, soloist Tom Sherwood processing with one of them, set against sharp fffff chords in the brass instead of bass drums.)
Schoenberg describes this first of three consecutive sections as a march that represents “our mundane, day-to-day existence; the experiences we inevitably take for granted, as we become absorbed in our daily lives,” but there are jarring breaks inserted in the rhythmic groove, evoking disruption of routine from “natural occurrences or disasters” such as earthquakes, extreme heat, drought and wildfires, or unusually torrential downpours and flooding. After this section comes to a “screeching halt,” a second section emerges, representing the loss of continental coastlines. The final section is a “scherzo” that serves as the composer’s “call to action” that is at once relentless and aggressive but also, to a degree, optimistic about the human endgame.
Petrasek’s virtuosic performance was terrific, remarkable in the seeming ease and fluidity of his technical capabilities — the deeper details of which were perhaps not so much grasped by the general audience as by his fellow percussionists but certainly felt by all present.
New set the overall temperament from the beginning with “Mars, the Bringer of War,” which was faster than anticipated. Under that choice, Mars came across as less a representation of the ponderous but relentless massiveness of mechanized war that resulted from the clash of 20th-century technology with 19th-century military science during World War I, and more of an alarmingly aggressive force of war with greater pointedness in its faster momentum (consider the German Blitzkrieg strategy of WWII as one relevant comparison).
New continued this inclination toward front-edge tempos for most of the suite, without going beyond the red line, while avoiding an all-too-settled-in reserved Britishness that can itself become heavy-handed and stodgy, although some of a traditional stateliness could have benefitted some movements of the Suite, taking them just a tick or two slower.
That said, overall the piece was well-played and enjoyable. It’s hard of The Planets not to engage the listener unless there are truly critical shortcoming in its performance, which was not the case here. The combination of two contemporary works plus this old favorite proved a duly satisfying program.
This was Gemma New’s fourth appearnce on the ASO podium. Beginning in 2021, previous ones were video streamed-only during the pandemic. At the time, she was being considered as a candidate for the post of ASO music director. While that did not come to fruition, New’s visit this week as guest conductor felt refreshing and we do look forward to her returning to lead the ASO again in the not-too-distant future. ■
- Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: aso.org
- Gemma New: gemmanew.com
- Joseph Petrasek: aso.org/artists/detail/joseph-petrasek