Holst’s The Planets is one of the top draws for concerts in Scotland, and there is a well-filled Usher Hall tonight for the RSNO’s concert. However, the orchestra, under John Storgårds, have decided to give us two unusual works in the first half of the concert. Firstly, we have an interlude for strings by Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik, which lasts only eight minutes but is lovely ethereal music and is well played by the RSNO string section. The second work is even more unusual. It is a tuba concerto, and indeed a European premiere at that, by American composer Jennifer Higdon.
Standing in front of an orchestra and playing solo tuba is not only unusual but quite tricky—tubas are large and quite heavy—but the RSNO’s principal tuba player, John Whitener, carries it off well. He is well backed up by the RSNO brass section and the rest of the orchestra. The work is remarkably melodic, with a slow quiet introduction, and later gets into jazz and blues rhythms. The tuba may not be a natural solo instrument—it is rather blunt, lacking the sensitivity and delicacy of the smaller brass instruments—but Whitener plays the work well and it isn’t unpleasant.
The second half of the concert is Holst’s great work The Planets, which shot him to fame when it was first performed in 1920. It is a monumental work in seven sections, each named after a planet, and employs a really big RSNO with a particularly large brass and percussion section: the RSNO drummers have never enjoyed themselves so much!
The first movement, Mars, the Bringer of War, begins the work with a bang (in fact a lot of bangs) and, written during the First World War, it really conveys the violence and the horror of war. The second section, Venus, the Bringer of Peace, is a striking contrast, beginning a solo horn playing gently, then backed up by flutes and oboes and then by strings, creating a lovely peaceful melody. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity introduces us to the influence of folk music, and in particular the hymn-like tune of I Vow to Thee My Country, which honours those who fell in the war. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age is serene and reflects the acceptance of old age; Uranus, the Magician is full of colour and panache; and the final movement, Neptune, the Mystic, ends with a heavenly chorus (the Ladies of the RSNO Chorus), gradually fading into nothing.
Storgårds conducts the work energetically, and the audience loves it and gives it several rounds of warm applause. Yes, The Planets is well known and maybe a little hackneyed at times, but it is great music and very enjoyable.