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Concert Review: From the Inner Core to the Outer Atmosphere

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony turns The Planets Inside Out
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Concert Review: From the Inner Core to the Outer Atmosphere

Jupiter as photographed by the Juno satellite.
Photo © 2019 NASA/JPL-CALTECH/SWRI/MSSS/XAKARUS ALLDREDGE

The InsideOut concert series, held by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony under the aegis of music director David Bernard, affords audience members the chance to hear major symphonic and orchestral works from a very different perspective. Where most concert audiences sit and face the orchestra, at InsideOut, the listeners seated in blocks, alternating with the players and sections of the ensemble.
On Saturday afternoon at the Dimenna Center on the new "lower" West Side of Manhattan, I was invited to attend the latest of these inverted concerts, a double presentation György Ligeti's Atmospheres with Holst's The Planets. That seven-part suite for large orchestra turned 100 last year, and this concert, shown with footage and photographs taken by NASA and curated by the American Museum of Natural History allowed one to hear these works from two very fresh perspectives.
The first of these was thrilling. At the start of the Ligeti work I was shown to a seat to the right of the fourth violist. After adjustments (to ensure there was a passage through the crowded seats and that her bow would not jab me during a particularly impassioned passage) the concert started with a short lecture and a few orchestral excerpts. Mr. Bernard also took questions and comments before launching into the full performance.
Ligeti places a unique burden on his string players, writing different parts that divide and subdivide the sections all the way down to the level of the individual. This technique is borrowed from Richard Strauss who first uses subdivided strings in Elektra and continued the practice right up to Metamorphosen. At this proximity the effect was spidery and delicate, drawing the ear into the stark and shattering dissonances that are employed at the climax of this work.
Then it was time for The Planets, which was divided here into two parts. Each movement was introduced by a Natural History astrophysicist, showed footage and photograps of Mars, Venus, etc. before the movement. While this provided an unwelcome series of interruptions to Holst's musical thought, it was fascinating to see the photographs and probe videos juxtaposed with the familiar, pounding rhythms of Mars. Mr. Bernard transited to Venus, the gentle counterpart to the rock-ribbed first movement, with eloquent solo passages for the concertmaster and principal horn. The latter was in excellent tone. Mercury followed swiftly, its quick-footed passages graced by leaping winds, shimmering strings and celesta.
At intermission, it was announced that the audience would be re-seated in order to experience the journey to the outer Planets from a different angle. However, this meant that your narrator was seated between the two sections of the large percussion ensemble, most of them with critical parts to play in the movements that followed. Luckily, I was equipped with an orchestral score, enabling me to anticipate each fortissimo rattle and bang of tambourine, kettledrums and cymbals. Jupiter, accompanied by spectacular shots from the Juno satellite, has never sounded so forceful.
Saturn was Holst's favorite movement of this work, and Mr. Bernard gave a good argument for its slow, forceful tread. From this new perspective, Uranus was dark in the sky, with the xylophone pounding out rhythmic accents and the cadre of trombones responding with fearsome repetions of the Dies Irae. This led directly into Neptune, the slow final movement. Here, Holst divides his two harps and lays down a shimmering bed of strings and woodwinds. And he adds the last touch, a divided women's chorus, placed here on either side of the room. The ethereal, wordless sound of these voices hinted at a world beyond the solar system, ending in a slow fade-out: another Holst innovation.
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