The Spokane Symphony and the women of the Symphony Chorale soared to space this weekend. The concert was a visual and sonic spectacular with the music of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and photographs from NASA missions.
Saturday and Sunday concerts were conducted by Eckart Preu and presented works that explored the inner space of religion and human psychology, along with a bit of interplanetary adventure.
Preu opened with the first movement of Olivier Messiaen’s “L’Ascension,” an orchestral prayer scored for brass and woodwinds. Despite some imprecision in attacks and releases, the organ-like sonority of this brief work made it a moving introduction to a program devoted to mystic themes.
The most gripping work was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem “The Isle of the Dead.” Like many, even most, of Rachmaninoff’s works, it was based on an extra-musical inspiration: Arnold Böcklin’s 1880 painting of the same name, depicting the island of Ponza in the Bay of Naples and a small boat carrying a coffin to the island across the dark bay.
“I know there must be some story this piece tells,” Preu told his audience. “But no one knows what it is. Whatever you think the story is, that’s what it must be.”
Rachmaninoff achieves an almost hypnotic musical effect using the low brass and strings to simulate the lapping and surging of the waves. Surprisingly, Rachmaninoff never resorts to those long soaring melodies we love so in his concertos and symphonies, just melodic fragments and orchestral color that tantalize the ear. The combination of orchestral control and tonal warmth made Saturday’s performance special.
The effect was heightened by a reproduction of Böcklin’s painting projected on a screen above the orchestra as the work began and ended.
The performance also provided a rare treat. The music of Ernest Bloch has almost disappeared from repertoires, except for “Schelomo,” his Hebrew rhapsody for cello and orchestra. Preu paid tribute to Bloch by presenting two interludes from his not-very-successful opera “Macbeth.” The interludes explore the range of Macbeth’s emotions – the arrogance, power, doubt, anguish – all tumbling in his mind along with images of witches, Lady Macbeth and King Duncan. Heady stuff, powerfully orchestrated and movingly played.
The concert’s tour-de-force, though, was “The Planets,” Holst’s orchestral masterpiece. The piece was accompanied by an interactive projection of NASA photographs of the planets depicted musically. It was no mere slide show, but a computer controlled program of photographs keyed to changes in Holst’s score put together by Video Ideas Productions. The audience saw each planet at a distance, in close ups, and in detailed shots of the planet’s surface or its moons or rings. The photographic detail of those varied colors and textures was astounding, making for an engrossing experience.
I left The Fox knowing I had heard some very fine orchestral work but remembering only angry flashes of Mars, bits of hearty Jupiter, the wit of Mercury and Uranus, and the magical end of Neptune, with its ghostly women’s chorus. Was I the only one who yielded to the seductions of the visual and paid little heed to the music? I doubt it.