PSO’s ‘The Planets’ colorful, vibrant, fresh

November 24, 2018

There’s no doubt a good title helps any work become noticed, but music history is littered with pieces with fine titles and forgettable music. Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” has become one of the most popular orchestral pieces because its music is so colorful and fresh, and much more vibrant than its title alone would suggest.

“The Planets” was first heard 100 years ago, and more inspired by the astrological significance of the planets than by astronomy or ancient mythology. Holst was a virtuoso trombonist who could play the piccolo solo from “Stars and Stripes Forever” on his instrument. But although he wrote other notable music, including “The Hymn of Jesus,” little of it prepares the listener for his imaginative response to his subject or for the brilliance of his orchestration for “The Planets.”

John Storgaards will conduct the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at concerts Nov. 2-4 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall. The program is Vaino Raitio’s “Moonlight on Jupiter,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4 with William Caballero as soloist, and Holst’s “The Planets” with the female voices of the Mendelssohn Choir.

Storgaards is a Finnish conductor who began his career as a violinist. He went back to school when he felt the urge to become a conductor based on his leadership experience with strings and chamber ensembles. Now he receives enthusiastic reviews for command of the orchestra and his musicality.

Storgaards will open the concert with a piece he says the composer regarded as his best orchestral piece.

“I am very happy to make my debut with the Pittsburgh orchestra with what is probably the North American premiere of ‘Moonlight on Jupiter.’ Raitio is one of the most important Finnish composers and one of those in the shadow of (Jean) Sibelius. He had a totally different style from Sibelius, very much influenced by impressionism and expressionism.”

Raitio said the piece was a memorial to a beloved family cat, but his wife said it resulted from a dream in which the composer imagined himself traveling in space and able to see the seven moons of Jupiter.

The program will be completed by the subscription concert premiere of Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4, written in 1786. The late date of this premiere is an oddity of symphony programming. Mozart’s Four Horn Concertos have been popular and widely known since English hornist Dennis Brain’s marvelous 1953 recordings on EMI.

Caballero has been the orchestra’s principal horn since May 1989 and has played two other Mozart Horn Concertos, both Richard Strauss concertos and several other solo works at Heinz Hall. His 2012 performance of the Strauss First Concerto with music director Manfred Honeck has just been released on CD, paired with Honeck’s 2017 performance of the “Eroica” Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The soloist says the scope of Mozart’s slow movements adds to “a more complete, more dense concerto. There are two cadenzas, and the piece is also vastly more difficult.”

He says the challenge for the player, aside from stamina and “a little bit of high range in the first movement is musical - the shape of the line and what you bring to the music.”

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