Review: The Planets

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 9:51am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 9:56am

The Planets
Hong Kong Philharmonic
HK Cultural Centre Concert Hall
Reviewed: July 5

The Hong Kong Philharmonic’s final programme of the season concluded with Holst’s The Planets, a 50-minute work requiring vast forces, including quadruple woodwind and massed timpani. And what better person to put in charge of it than David Robertson (right), the American conductor with experience of directing the world’s biggest musical knees-up at the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms in 2009?

But is there a worse way to put a dampener on the resources than to have sterile projections of the planets scrolling on a pair of side screens throughout the performance? This necessitated dimming the stage lights, casting the players into the role of a pit orchestra and forming a distracting mismatch between Holst’s humanising of the astrological characters through musical subtleties and the solid-rock uniformity of the images.

The performance inevitably got a broad-brush approach as a result, working best in Mars, the Bringer of War, where the brass section’s muscle and the percussion’s brawn proved a formidable weapon. Venus, the Bringer of Peace, however, sounded matter-of-fact; Mercury, the Winged Messenger was nifty enough but lacked light-headedness; while Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity suffered from split trumpet notes. Saturn, Uranus and Neptune mustered more personality, ladies from the Chamber Youth group of the Hong Kong Children’s Choir providing the mystical off-stage vocals.

The first half also cruised the solar system, if only by dint of the two work’s titles. First up was Nielsen’s Helios, ancient Greece’s personification of the sun, written by the Danish composer under its intense glare while in Athens. It portrays the sun’s movement from sunrise to sunset through its noonday zenith, but the work’s construction has none of the star’s smooth trajectory. Robertson steered the piece with authority, however, securing an inner momentum that didn’t rely on heightened dynamics alone.

Claude Vivier’s Orion must qualify as one of the most dysfunctional pieces ever written. From the composer’s description of the work: “Eternal homecoming, as in History with a capital H, which always waits impatiently for the return of its redemptive saints and its dictators.”

From your reviewer: Imagine the Orion constellation doing a sonic sweep across earth, picking up seemingly random melodic snippets, from Javanese gamelan to bluesy New Orleans figurations and climaxing with some brave player’s vocalisation of the first two notes of Jamaica’s Banana Boat Song.

Sam Olluver