A musical tour of the planets

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2011

How do you follow up a spectacular work like Mahler’s Second Symphony? By presenting a known crowd-pleaser.

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Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire
Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire

The Juneau Symphony continues its season this weekend with a performance of Gustav Holst’s “the Planets,” a piece that headlined one of the symphony’s all-time best-selling concerts back in 2002. Conductor Kyle Pickett, choosing the music for this year’s “Maestro’s Favorites” season, said he’s had repeated requests for a second round of Holst very popular work.

“I’d thought I’d bring back a piece that was a huge success,” he said.

The piece’s popularity extends far beyond Juneau and around the world, in part due to its melodiousness, Pickett said, and also because of the wide range of styles explored in the seven sections as musicians lead the listener through a tour of the planets.

“Each one has a specific character,” Pickett said, from the war-like drama of Mars to the peaceful melodies of Venus.

Holst relied on astrological rather than scientific interpretations of the planets in his composition, calling the piece “a series of mood pictures.”

Each planet is assigned a theme as follows: Mars, the Bringer of War; Venus, the Bringer of Peace; Mercury, the Winged Messenger; Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity; Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age; Uranus, the Magician; Neptune, the Mystic. Pluto had not yet been discovered when the piece was written in 1918, and Earth is traditionally left out of astrological descriptions of the planets.

Many of the melodies may seem familiar to listeners; they have often been used in popular culture, as the symphony’s event at the Gold Town cinema last week made clear. Jupiter is probably the best known theme, Pickett said. But whether or not you recognize the music, you may find yourself humming them on your way out of the hall.

“It has .... really gorgeous, beautifully hummable melodies,” Pickett said.

Young soloist

Also on the program, a Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, written by Mozart for his own use when the composer was 19.

“We tend to think of him as a great keyboardist ... but he was also a virtuoso violinist,” Pickett said.

Because Mozart composed the piece when he was quite young, Pickett said its entirely appropriate it be played by the Juneau Symphony’s youngest member, Ethan Seid. Seid, a ninth grader at Juneau-Douglas High School who studies under Steve Tada, won the junior division of the Youth Solo Competition in 2008 and last year won the senior division.

In addition to performing with the Juneau Symphony and Juneau Student Symphony, Seid performs with the JDHS Chamber Orchestra. He also made first violin at the All-State High School Orchestra in Anchorage.

Mozart wrote only five violin concertos, Pickett said, this being his last.
“Its a spectacular piece,” he added.

The third piece on the program is Dvorak’s Scherzo capriccioso, selected by associate conductor William Todd Hunt, Pickett said, a decision he found most appropriate .

“It’s romantic, it’s lush, it’s so melodious and tuneful, but it really has the bohemian quality as well,” he said.

The symphony’s two performances this weekend will give local audiences their pick of venues: Saturday night’s performance will be at JDHS, while Sunday afternoon concert will be at Thunder Mountain.

Pickett said both rooms have pluses and minuses, adding that each one has its fans in the community.

“One of the things I like about Thunder Mountain is that it’s transparent in sound. We can hear ourselves on stage better than anywhere else we’ve played, and in the audience everything comes through with great clarity. The thing I like about JDHS is that its got a warm sound. So Thunder Mountain has much more clarity but it’s a little bit colder, and JDHS is a bit mushier but has a warmer sound.”

Those looking for an opportunity to compare and contrast the venue’s advantages may have no better chance than this.

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