The Wichita Symphony Prepares To Visit ‘The Planets' As Imagined By Gustav Holst

Apr 13, 2018

The Wichita Symphony performs Saturday, April 14, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 15, at 3 p.m. with a program that includes a performance of Gustav Holst's The Planets.

The performance features cosmic images projected on a screen above the orchestra. Maestro Daniel Hege stopped by the KMUW studios recently to discuss his own preparations for the weekend concerts.

Interview Highlights

Jedd Beaudoin: Tell me a little bit about Holst's The Planets.

Daniel Hege: Holst was a British composer who decided to write a work about 50 minutes long about the planets. There are seven movements. I'm sure that people are thinking, "Wait, there are at least eight planets if you count Earth." And there were nine when there was Pluto. But Pluto had not yet been discovered. This was written 1914 to 1916. Pluto wasn't discovered until about 1930.

Holst wanted to write about the astrological impacts of the planets on a human's psyche. Therefore, he was not interested in the astronomical properties of the planets. That's why he left Earth out. Earth is not part of the planets that we'll hear. We start with "Mars: The Bringer of War." We have this really heavy, militaristic sound from the orchestra. What he does, basically, is explore the properties each of these planets has on the psyche. So, we have Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The music incredibly varied from one movement to another.

"Mars: The Bringer of War" is where a lot of film composers, John Williams included, have gotten ideas. Holst had a great influence on them, how to write this music that sounded so powerful. He uses a huge brass section — four trombones, four trumpets, tuba — a massive battery of percussion, a large woodwind string section, a large string section. The audience will see a huge orchestra up there, maybe about 100 players.

They'll also get a visual feast with NASA imagery above the orchestra on a big screen. This imagery was put together by an astronomer, Dr. Jose Francisco Salgado. He's also a graphic artist. Having that combination in one person really enables him to understand how these things look. What he did was listen to a recording of Holst's The Planets and he started to create images that would go well with the character of the music.

So, my job, as the conductor, is to conduct the music so that it lines up with the time code that's on the screen. I'll see the time code, the audience won't. But that has to line up with the markings on my score. It's going to be a challenge, but I've done it before. I think it's going to be an amazing experience for anyone who observes this.

There are lighter moments in the work as we move on from Mars.

He explores all those different characters. When you hear "Mercury: The Winged Messenger," you hear this frolicking around throughout the orchestra. With Venus, there's a very ruminative, meditative, kind of chime-y, so he doesn't only use the percussion for loud impact or forceful impact but through color.

That's one of the things he really explores through harmony and rhythm and combinations of instruments, is this idea of color. A lot of people say to me, "What do you mean when you say ‘color in sound?'", because we're used to color in the visual. If you described someone's voice as having a bright or tint-y quality everyone would pretty much understand that or if you said that someone had a dark and resonant quality to their voice. That evokes color and you can apply that to the instruments in an orchestra and how they're combined and different dynamic levels.

Color is something that Holst explored in the writing of this and he finds different characters throughout. It's not just forceful. It can be very fast. Uranus, for instance, is the magician, you hear the sound that goes to surprising places. Neptune, the last movement, has this very distant, almost surreal sound with the way he's creating the colors. And unexpected harmonies and yet it's still within a tonal palette.

Anyone listening might say, "Oh, this still sounds romantic." It's certainly not avant-garde, but it was progressive music for its time.

Neptune also uses a women's chorus at the end but the chorus is unseen by the public. That's a very specific instruction that Holst put into the score. The whole piece ends with this fading away of voices. In the distance. It's one of the first fade-away pieces ever written. He has basically everything in this piece: The massive sound, the chamber music, all the different moods and you get the visual feast from the film.

As a conductor, you're not just dealing with the music. You're dealing with the history, the biography of the composer. Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the composer's intention?

I definitely like to read up. I like to read about the historical context. Knowing that The Planets was written before World War I and that he's talking about the bringer of war. But that's simply because I'm curious. I'm interested in biographies. I'm interested in what the composer was thinking and who influenced him and which composers he influenced.

Having said that there are notable musicians who have said that the composer has written down everything that you need to know in the music itself. If you're really searching you will find whatever secrets are there, if you really look deeply enough. If we look at Bach, there's a lot we know about his life, but it doesn't necessarily shed a lot of light on some of the most spiritually searching and absolutely glorifying music that he wrote.

We know that he was a hard worker and that he could work very quickly and he was a genius but all the things we know about his life, which is a lot, doesn't necessarily help us interpret his music. That's something that you have to do with your mind and your soul through your searching. Using that as a template for other composers, I think you could do that with Holst's music.

So, it's interesting to look at biography and intention, but for my interpretation, I like to look at things like, "OK, here's the metronome marking. These are the instruments and this is how he's combining them. He has these instruments in one key signature and these instruments in another. Those are the things that fascinate me.

As you go through the score and think about key and time signatures, does that give you some insight into the person themselves?

Yes, you do because you begin to see how he was trying to create other worlds. By using different key signatures and sometimes unusual time signatures you see that he was trying to create this feeling of the unexpected. That's how the music feels like it's progressive. You can't necessarily expect what's going to happen next. He takes you off in these different directions. Right when you think that a harmony should lead to this one, based on our norms, it goes a little bit left or right, something's a little bit off. It definitely does show a window into his imagination and what he was trying to achieve. You try to highlight those things. What are those things that seem astonishing to you as you read the music? Try to make them come off that way to the audience. This moment in the music is quite revelatory. It doesn't sound as much now because we've heard a lot of music since 1916 but if you think about the first time this music was heard, you can actually create that sound. Our audience today can listen to that and go, "Wow! That's really astonishing."

I think that we're always trying to make the music as fresh as possible.

Do you seek out recordings of a piece before you conduct it?

I think, because there are so many recordings out there, it would be foolish to never listen to them. I think that's part of any musician's education is to at least be aware of different performances, different ways to hear the music. I will say that, as a youngster, I listened a lot to recordings. As I got older and started studying conducting I wanted to stay away from the recordings at first. I wanted to simply learn the score the way the composer had written it.

I feel like it's untainted then. You don't get another person's perspective. If you want to learn about a story and say, "Why don't you tell me your interpretation of the story before I read it?" Then you're looking at it through someone else's eyes already.

Of course, there are things that have already entered your mind before you could ever look at a score. There are certain Beethoven symphonies I heard starting when I was a kid. You have a memory of that. But as you study the score again it's easy to get your own idea about it and not be influenced by someone else.

I do think it's valuable to listen to other recordings and hear what other people have had to say about it, to hear how certain great orchestras have done things. How have certain conductors and orchestras resolved certain issues that are difficult? Maybe a difficult transition, something like that.

In this particular case, because I have to follow a metronomic approach in terms of the interpretation, I have to actually follow what Dr. Salgado has set up with the images and how they're attached to the music. The recording that he listened to in order to put his images together, I have to listen to that one. But that's an unusual situation. I have to do that. But that's something I have to do in this particular case, to be aware of the tempos or they won't line up in the correct way.

What do you hope to hear when you walk into a first rehearsal?

My approach is that I go in there thinking that I'm going to hear "a performance-ready orchestra." Of course, it's not. Because it's a first rehearsal. While it's a piece that many people have experienced in different contexts, they haven't played it together in a very, very long time. Of course, it's not going to be performance-ready. But if you go in there with that approach, like, "I'm going to conduct it like it's a performance," especially on the first read-through. You set up expectations right away. You're going to have a view of the work from about 10,000 feet.

You'll get an overall picture rather than starting to work on the first movement and starting to get into granular details. I go in there with high expectations that they're going to be prepared and that it's going to sound pretty good.

As the conductor, do you ever get to relax?

I certainly get to that point where I can be very much in the moment. You want to get to that point where you're making it up as you go along. Like it's your thing, even though you're re-creating. That is a very special feeling and it happens after the frequency of studying and actually working with the musicians. I would say that I stay just shy of relaxing because that's when trouble could creep in.

Music recording courtesy of the Wichita Symphony.

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Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

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