Otherworldly: Holst's Planets soothe souls

Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra
at Cabell Hall
Sunday, February 23

I made it two minutes too late. By the time I reached Old Cabell, panting from my parking lot sprint, auditorium access was already closed. Rollin' with the punches, I made the most of my temporary exile and pitched camp at the top of the staircase. Pressing my ear to the doors, I listened for Dominick Argento's Capriccio for Clarinet and Orchestra.

The balcony breezes carried the piece, an homage to Rossini's Sins of my Old Age, quite well. Nancy Garlick, a founding member of the Albemarle Ensemble and instructor in the music department, was the clarinet soloist. As expected, she played with exceptional form and fluidity. However, although the chosen piece was pretty, it was only mildly interesting, not fascinating. At times, Argento's compliment seemed too overdone. Perhaps the light-heartedness he was aiming for had been restrained by his own deliberation.

During the intermission, a retired symphony violinist graciously offered me her extra seat. Her gesture was a nice reward– I was able to see the stage from a prime location.

A friend of Gustav Holst once said of the British composer, "When he made his point, he moved on." His most ambitious effort, The Planets, written during the early stages of World War I (1914-1916), shines in its dissimilarity. The overwhelming reception that followed its debut in 1918 established Holst as one of England's most treasured composers; decades later, excerpts from "Jupiter" were played at both her royal wedding and Diana's funeral.

Holst was enamored with astrology, especially the idea of star-fated dispositions. The Planets is comprised of seven tone poems, each corresponding to a major orbiter of the time (Earth was skipped, and Pluto had not been discovered): Mars, Bringer of War; Venus, Bringer of Peace; Mercury, the Winged Messenger; Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity; Saturn, Bringer of Old Age; Uranus, The Magician; and Neptune, the Mystic.

The work was designed for an enormous orchestra; it took both the Charlottesville and the University Symphony Orchestras to fill the requisite number of seats.

My two personal favorites, Saturn and Neptune, share a tranquil beauty. I could almost see old man Saturn bowing his hoary head to the supremacy of time. The piece marched forward in a relentless largo; following a brief, discordant climax (an individual's struggle with the knowledge of death?), the strings diminished, twinkling (final thoughts on a full life?).

Neptune, the final frontier, was cast in a pianissimo twilight. The shapeless melody fanned out in waves of eerie fades. Harps rippled in the quiet. Offstage, at the finale, the University of Virginia Women's Chorus played unseen, otherworldly sirens, drifting their wordless voices through odd, looping ascensions. They receded into the unknown, out of range; we were left in the twilight of the evening.

Excellent timing.