On Thursday in Symphony Hall, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed a concert that paired “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss and “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, led by Music Director Robert Spano. Both works required larger orchestral forces than normally seen on the Symphony Hall stage, promising a feast for the ears in the variety of sonic colors. The concert will be performed, in part, again this evening (Friday) at 6 p.m. (Holst only) and once again, in full, Saturday at 8 p.m.
“Also Sprach Zarathustra” began the program. The opening “Sunrise” section was made iconic through its use in Stanley Kubrick’s epic 1968 sci-fi movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and thus has become superficially identified with “space” in the public mind. The composer’s inspiration for the complete tone poem, however, was the philosophical novel Also Sprach Zarathustra by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The Strauss work is not about “space” but “destiny” and the book’s central concept of “eternal recurrence” — hence Kubrick’s insightful choice for its use in the “2001” film.
Spano and the ASO performed the nine contiguous sections of the work with intensity and post-Romantic verve. That’s not to say that Strauss put the orchestral pedal to the metal all the time. Even with the lusciously expanded complement of woodwinds and brass, Strauss’ orchestration has a special way with the strings, whether judiciously using a few at a time or in full force, whether divided into a dozen or more parts in quiet passages or solos — such the considerable Viennese waltz late in the piece, which showcased ASO Concertmaster David Coucheron.
Strauss leaves the listener with the question of destiny unanswered with a bitonal ending. The upper-range instrument concluded quietly in the key of B major, while the pizzicato cellos and basses softly reprised the three-note opening theme in an open, modeless C tonality.
Holst’s highly popular suite “The Planets” made up the second half of the concert. (In this evening’s experimental “First Friday” short concert, it will be the only work performed.) Its inspiration was not the planets from a scientific astronomical perspective, but their astrological meanings. Hence, like the Strauss, the piece is not so much related to space as to destiny.
“Mars, the Bringer of War” was a chilling, menacing opener, a great contrast to the merely thumping renditions too often heard. “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” was lucid and lovely, and “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” was swift and nimble.
“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” is the centerpiece of “The Planets,” vying with “Mars” for status as the movement most recognized by the general public. Spano and the orchestra allowed for a broad reading, with the melody that later became the hymn tune for “I Vow to Thee My Country” given an especially expansive, unhurried and noble rendering. “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” is often described as “somber and plodding,” but this performance was more patient and earnest, though not without its heavy pesante passages.
“Uranus, the Magician” was as unabashed as “Mercury” was nimble, opening with a boldly stated four-note unison theme in trumpets and trombones, echoed at a faster pace by the tenor and bass tubas, and double that pace again by timpani. Three bassoons sneaked in with a character vaguely reminiscent of Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Spano and the orchestra took a good brisk tempo, which emphasized the somewhat manic character of the sudden twists and turns up to a martial climax marked ffff in the score. From there, the music took on a suddenly eerie turn, with a handful of strings playing softly with the two harps. The orchestra then took a stab at recouping its previous brash character, only to give up in quiet resignation at the end.
“Neptune, The Mystic” concluded the suite. The score calls for a pair of treble choruses (six parts in all) to sing softly offstage, unseen by the audience, at the very end — a total of 46 bars with the final bar “to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance.” However, as a pragmatic solution, this performance made use of a fluttery “vox humana” stop on Symphony Hall’s large electronic organ, already in use all evening anyway, to emulate the human voices fading away all alone to silence.
The entire was well enjoyed by the assembled. The repertoire was hardly risky programming, but the two works were of decisive depth and well paired. For many of the musicians it was a wearing physical workout, but one that rewarded them with a great feeling of exhilaration.
The opening “Sunrise” section of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” served as the entrance music for two pop culture figures. Find out which here.