Orchestral Music Review Print

BMC: Planets & More

August 4, 2006 - Brevard, NC:

Wow! Hang on to your hat. This one was really out of this world. The August 4 concert was played by the Brevard Music Center Repertory Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stephen Smith. Unlike the usual Sunday afternoon ensemble, this 111-member orchestra is made up completely of students. Conductor Smith is the only faculty member. This program was ambitious too: the Háry János Suite by Zoltán Kodály and The Planets by Gustav Holst.

Kodály is one of my favorite composers. I like his in-your-face treatment of rhythm, use of the triple forte (fff) dynamic on a single 32nd note or groups of them, and the incessant tonal wandering while never straying too far from home. Háry János Suite, Op. 15, for orchestra was written in 1926 and has enjoyed greater play than the opera itself. The orchestration is thorough and broad, with varied timbres, a very active percussion score, and full participation from the woodwinds. The composer allowed many years of influence from varied sources, not the least of which was the rich folk tradition of his native Hungary. But it took Bartók to really state the crux. "(Kodály's) music is not the kind described nowadays as modern.... His idiom is nevertheless new; he says things that have never been uttered before and demonstrates thereby that the tonal principle has not lost its raison d'être as yet." For my money, few can write such dark and brooding lines for the viola as the Hungarian masters. There is so much cultural pathos churning around in this music that a listener truly has visited a new space. The orchestra realized it precisely, with Bruce Murray playing piano from the pit.

Speaking of space, the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute is just down the road, near Rosman, NC. In 1962 the site was called Rosman Research Station. NASA used it as the primary East Coast facility for tracking satellites and monitoring manned space flights. In 1981, the RRS was transferred to the Department of Defense and used for satellite data collection. In 1995, the facility was closed and all operations were consolidated elsewhere. At one time there were 23 antennae at the site. A not-for-profit public foundation was established in September 1998, and in January 1999 the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute was born. I mention all this because along with The Planets by Gustav Holst, the second half of the concert featured an extra-terrestrial slide show themed to each of the seven movements, and PARI supplied all the pictures. Of course they have a pretty good contact called NASA. Photos of the planets and solar system came from the Cassini, Galileo, and Messenger deep-space satellites and the Hubble Space Telescope. Not too shabby, eh?

Of course, Holst's classic score was written around the zodiac and not what would have been keyed as the (then) seven planets. But in this combination, the entire score soars with equal magnitude. Probably using a Power Point program to cycle the image changes, each new movement began with a graphic showing the title. During each movement, images relating to the subject — e.g. Mars or Venus or Jupiter — cycled through. While changes of photo were not always timed with a musical phrase, there were a few moments when a new slide appeared at a particularly dramatic musical moment. This made for some stunning imagery accompanied by a great orchestral reading of the work.

This combination has been done before, but not often enough and never at BMC. It was a stunning presentation all around — particularly in "Neptune, The Mystic," the final movement, where a women's chorus* is employed. It is difficult to ignore the inference that Stanley Kubrick must have been influenced by this work when he included the famous choral work of Ligeti (RIP) in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The effects of that female timbre and long-note pitches produce an eerie and completely plausible background for the Great Beyond.

Keith Lockhart hinted that BMC might have a chorus program from 2008 on. That would open up the big-ticket programs considerably.

*Janiec Opera Company Women's Chorus, Gerard Floriano, chorus master, & Daniela Candillari, conductor. The members — listed here because some of them have figured in other BMC productions this summer — are Laura Botkin, Collette Boudreaux, Erica Brookhyser, Kimberly Hoover, Lisa Kotara, Regan Lackey, Amadee Moore, Sarah Parker, Ariana Pullano, Ashley Stone, Elisha Weiner, and Elizabeth Westerman.