Otherworldly sounds from Robertson, Philharmonic in Holst’s “The Planets”

Sat May 28, 2016 at 12:16 pm

David Robertson conducted the New York Philharmonic this week in music of Elgar, Williams and Holst. Photo: Michael Tammaro

Fresh from last week’s all-Richard Strauss concert with the MET Orchestra, David Robertson led an entertaining program with the New York Philharmonic, featuring a classic that showcased the orchestra’s strings, a rousingly conceived version of The Planets, and a concerto for an instrument rarely given the spotlight.

Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings made an ingratiating opener, with vigorous rhythmic drive and luscious string tone. Despite the unusually large string contingent, Robertson elicited a clean, precise reading with careful attention to dynamic levels. Four of the orchestra’s principals—violinists Sheryl Staples and Lisa Kim, violist Cynthia Phelps, and cellist Carter Brey— made a warm, glowingly effective quartet.

When John Williams wrote his Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra for the Boston Pops Orchestra centennial in 1985, the prolific film composer had recently completed scores for The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), among others. He also conducted the premiere with soloist Chester Schmitz, to whom the work is dedicated. In the composer’s words, “the tuba emerges as an acrobat, bustling along with the vivacity normally encountered from instruments a fraction of its size.”

In three movements (fast-slow-fast, without pause), the concerto opens with a high, chirping figure in the strings, which makes the tuba’s entrance even more entrancing. Harp and vibraphone also frame the instrument, which turns out to have more tone colors than one might imagine. The ruminative slow movement bears some resemblance to the wonders of Williams’s E.T. score, before trumpets and triangle introduce the exuberantly syncopated finale.

Alan Baer. Photo: Chris Lee

Alan Baer. Photo: Chris Lee

Alan Baer, the orchestra’s principal tuba since 2004, made his Philharmonic solo debut with this piece, and aptly demonstrated the instrument’s versatility. If the tuba seems Brontosaurus-like to some, Baer proved otherwise, with his agile fingering and finely calibrated tone. His expertise in the clamorous, Respighi-like finale, pumped with bells and brass, was a delight.

But for most in the audience (packed with young people, perhaps because of the end of the school year), the big draw was Gustav Holst’s The Planets, now 100 years old this year. Holst’s masterpiece is popular for a good reason: it is a virtual catalogue of arresting orchestration. If some find it sentimental or clichéd, it is likely from over-familiarity—its influence has found its way into hundreds of subsequent compositions, particularly film scores.

In front of a gigantic ensemble, Robertson dispatched “Mars” with a moderate tempo, but when the opening theme returned, it was faster, with surprising fury. “Venus” had a sensuous, even coquettish cast, with Sheryl Staples and Carter Brey in lovely solo lines. Frisky winds marked “Mercury,” but from comments afterward, the favorite of many was the magnificently expansive reading of “Jupiter.”

Using broad tempi, in keeping with Holst’s concept, Robertson and the orchestra turned the movement (“the Bringer of Jollity”) into a grandly opulent tone poem—bounding along, but with keen attention to the (few) quiet moments. At the end, after the powerful final chord and responding to a few shouts from the audience, Robertson turned and acknowledged, “That was great!” as the audience cheered and applauded.

A steady tread marked “Saturn” (“the Bringer of Old Age”) with vital contributions from chimes and harp, and the conductor artfully maintaining serenity, especially in the beautiful fade at the end—which made the attacca for “Uranus” (“the Magician”) even more effective. As with the entire work, one could only grin in awe at Holst’s orchestration skills. In this, the penultimate movement, tuba, bassoons, and piccolo have memorable moments, and in the “small details” category, the harps have some gorgeous, languid flickering near the end.

At the conclusion, Robertson again launched “Neptune” without a break, with ethereal contributions from the women (offstage) of the Oratorio Society of New York, directed by Kent Tritle, and some gentle sparkle from Eric Huebner on celeste. Throughout, Robertson’s skill and patience allowed every glistening detail to be audible.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday. nyphil.org.

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