Visiting conductor Peter Oundjian
Sometimes, in a live performance, a conductor will downplay “the big tune” in a symphony performance. Sometimes, in a live performance, a conductor will elevate and revel in “the big theme.”
We gratefully received the latter on Saturday night at Symphony Hall. Of which big tune do I speak? This one is inextricably associated with a specific time and era in a clearly defined culture. However, there are a couple of tunes that are always associated with specific national cultures.
"I Vow to Thee My Country"
Music: Jupiter by Gustav Theodore Holst; event: Festival of Remembrance Royal Albert Hall
Nessun Dorma is the essence of Italian culture in musical form — although it used to be Vesti la giubba. Va pensiero can also stake a claim as the unofficial Italian cultural anthem. The Blue Danube will always be associated with the elegance of 19th-century Vienna. The Peer Gynt Suite is Norway incarnate — even though the famous Morning Mood is set in Africa.
For England there is Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. Jerusalem by William Blake is another, but there is no tune that lives and breathes Edwardian England more than the central section of Holst’s Jupiter. It is the central section of the central movement of the seven planets in Holst’s existential journey through space and time.
This tune holds the Holstian solar system together in much the same way as Jupiter the planet holds ours actual solar system together. According to my boorish knowledge of local astronomy, we should all wake up every morning and worship Jupiter for protecting the Earth from any number of interstellar threats.
When the Jupiter tune arrived, the gravity of the moment was not lost on the audience as all six horns intoned the stately procession of notes that connote the fullness of life as it basks in the noontime sun before succumbing to the relentless power of Saturn (time).
It has often been pointed out that The Planets is an astrological musical event as opposed to astronomical. At the top of the concert, visiting conductor Peter Oundjian explained the progression of the planets as an expansion of consciousness in the life of a human being. The progression starts with strife and war on Mars and ends in the mystical seas of Neptune.
Regarding Neptune, the effect of the offstage women’s chorus was damn near transcendent. The lights in the auditorium dimmed as the women’s voices evaporated into the mists of the astral plane. The effect was awe-inspiring. Maestro Oundjian held the silence — the silence that was tangible as it flowed in, around, and through each member of the audience.
As the auditorium erupted into applause I could still hear a shadow tone of the women’s chorus calling to my inner ear from the great beyond. I can’t help but think that Holst was on to something that defies the standard model of the universe.
On the whole — I haven’t even mentioned Dr. Atomic which opened the program — this concert was as good as we’ve gotten from the San Diego Symphony. Ever.