The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Holst’s The Planets & Augustin Hadelich

When & Where 12 April, 2024, 7pm at the Orpheum

Conductor Gemma New Featured performer Augustin Hadelich - violin

Programme Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Alissa Firsov’s Die Windsbraut, Benjamin Britten’s Concerto for Violin opus 15

Reviewer John Anthony Jane

New Zealander Gemma New stepped onto the podium for an all British programme at the Orpheum on Friday evening (April 12) in an unusually start time of 7pm. The first piece was Alissa Firsova’s Die Windsbraut (The Bride of the Wind) initially composed as a piano duet. The work is primarily based on Oskar Kokoschka’s well known painting of the same name. Maestra New’s dynamic reading of this orchestral tone-poem certainly evokes the stormy relationship of Kokoschka’s two subjects.

Unlike the previous piece, Benjamin Britten’s Concerto for Violin, opus 15 is frequently performed by orchestras together with virtuoso violinists. In Britain it’s sometimes referred to as the Canada Concerto, since it was completed while Britten was staying in Quebec province. The concerto is written in three movements, beginning with the moderato con moto, continues with the vivace and ends rather quietly with the andante lento.

While it essentially features Augustin Hadelich’s solo violin, it also features strong passages of brass and woodwind. Mr. Hadelich is an excellent violinist and there is hardly a moment when his playing is not exquisite in tone. In response to the standing ovation, Hadelich generously gave a short encore of Bach’s Sarabanda from Partita No. 2.

The Planets just might be the most popular serious music ever composed by an Englishman. When Gustav Holst composed the suite, over hundred years ago at the onset of WW1, he could not have foreseen how well his music would fit the soundtrack of interplanetary travel in the 21st century.

When performed with such vehemence and virtuosity, The Planets can be a thrilling journey. Friday night's VSO performance was nothing if not thrilling. Maestra New’s exuberant direction brought out every single one of the multifarious moods and orchestral complexities in this rousing suite. The seven movements each portray the astrological traits of the seven known planets in our solar system at the time, in order of distance from the Earth (Pluto is, of course, absent from the suite, since its existence was not known in 1914).

Holst’s monumental orchestral suite calls for a full orchestra with additional reinforcements of a bass flute, a contra bassoon, a celeste and a bank of French horns. Maestra New strikes a perfect balance with the orchestra, in terms of strings, brass and percussion not overwhelming the overall performance.

Mars, the Bringer of War, the first movement is ominous and menacing, with strident marching strings. Venus, the bringer of Peace is slower with melody lines played on harps, flutes, and ethereal violin passages. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, with its core anthem-like melody is bold and bouncy. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, with the slow, plodding double-bass juxtaposed with the nimble harp is intentionally depressing. Uranus, the Magician, might have been alternately titled ‘the 'Bringer of Chaos’. Neptune, the Mystic, the last movement has a surreal quality, like a dream set to music. In the final moments the orchestra gives way to the unique timbre of a single wood wind instrument indicating that when the music ends, the mission continues.

© 2024 John Anthony Jane