CU in the Community: A Review of “Holst’s The Planets, Live in Motion”

October 07, 2023


By Brandon Kathman, Program Specialist


It seems to me there are two breeds of contemporary composers: those who cite Gustav Holst as an influence or inspiration, and those besieged with copyright lawsuits from his foundation. To parlay an analogy from Terry Pratchett, Holst’s Planets suite has become a mountain of sorts, its presence evident in modern compositions as Mt. Fuji appears in Japanese art. At times it looms large; in other instances, it is distant and subtle. On rare occasions, it is not visible at all, suggesting the artist either made a deliberate decision against the mountain (which is itself fascinating) or is in fact standing atop Mt. Fuji. 


I cannot understate the privilege of finally experiencing The Planets in concert. All commendations are due to the consummate Maestro Fouad Fakhouri and his exceptional ensemble. The evening was emotional, breathtaking, and altogether cosmic: a faithful performance of an indelible composition. A series of movements characterizing the planets as their mythic namesakes, the suite is equal parts mellifluous and thundering, bombastic and subdued - audacious in its juxtapositions. One may tremble at the martial beats of Mars, Bringer of War only to be soothed by the strings of Venus, Bringer of Peace.


Holst’s brilliance may be self-evident, but faithful execution is itself a triumph. When performed by masterful musicians, such as I experienced, Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity frolics with grace and abandon as a dancer; Mars pummels with raw force as a boxer. The gods’ dominions, represented by the epitomes of respective arts, are thereby translated to the medium of music.  


Speaking of mediums, I must also praise the decision to employ a visual complement throughout, as the orchestra projected authentic NASA footage onto a screen behind the performers. Venus glittered, Neptune enchanted, Jupiter made dwarves of the rest. In making this choice, the SBSO married astronomy and divinity - art and science. The footage’s use was not only thematic; it elevated the source material. When Holst wrote the suite, the most compelling footage of “space” may have been the plaster artifices in Melies’ Trip to the Moon (1902). As Holst could hardly imagine the celestial wonders on display in this weekend’s performance, I can scarcely conceive what visuals may accompany a similar concert a century from now. 


Also worthy of mention was the concert’s opening act, which included samples from the scores of popular space-themed films. The preceding selection served to showcase Holst’s progeny: “Flying Theme” from ET (1982) and “Theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind). By their inclusion, the orchestra makes clear the divine lineage of these “children of the gods.”  


I am heartened to share that I was far from alone in the Temple Theatre on Saturday night. I saw colleagues, couples, families with young children, and an especially zealous group of SVSU music majors. I am thrilled to have shared my experience with such a diverse crowd from our community. I look forward to the next concerts the SBSO has in store for all of us this season, and I am happy to share that sentiment with good company.