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On your imaginary forces work

Concert Review: RPO presents Holst's "The Planets" 

On your imaginary forces work

In its opening speech, the Chorus in Shakespeare's "Henry V" exhorts the audience to use its imagination to recreate the numerous English and French settings of the play -- hence the quote that gives this review its title. For its concluding concert of the 2013-14 season, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra highlights imaginative musical canvases by two British composers, with a British conductor (Michael Francis) presiding, and a British actor (Malcolm Ingram) lending his Shakespearean expertise.

The "Suite from Henry V" adds Shakespeare's words to musical highlights from William Walton's splendid score for the titular 1944 Laurence Olivier film. Though the words and music are equally colorful, this large-scale piece -- cobbled together by British composer and author Christopher Palmer -- came off as less than the sum of its parts. Malcolm Ingram's reading of most of the famous bits for Henry and Falstaff was compelling enough, but without Shakespeare's dramatic context, they don't quite land.

Walton's music, however, does just fine on its own. He found just the right brassy, regal swagger for Henry's music. But the most memorable portions of this score are two brief, quiet sections scored for strings alone: ""The Death of Falstaff" and "Touch her Soft Lips and Part." These were delicately paced by Michael Francis and exquisitely played by the RPO strings, but the full orchestra also gave Walton's festive moments the snazziness they require -- the "Agincourt Song" pealing out in the brass near the end of the work almost made me feel British.

"The Planets" is so familiar now, and has been pilfered by other composers so often since its premiere in 1920 (it was written between 1914 and 1916), that it can be difficult to realize how original a work it is. Gustav Holst's "imaginary forces" were strong here: he translated the astrological qualities of the then-known seven planets into innovative music, almost single-handedly creating the "outer space" sound world -- and making many later movie soundtrack scores possible, from Vaughan Williams to John Williams.

Familiar it is, but if performed with energy, virtuosity, and a sense of adventure, "The Planets" can still be thrilling. And Thursday night's RPO performance was indeed pretty thrilling. Michael Francis brought out every one of the myriad moods and orchestral colors in this suite, and had some interesting interpretive ideas of his own, starting with a ferocious "Mars, The Bringer of War." This was taken at a tremendous clip -- arguably too fast, though Holst's tempo marking is a simple "Allegro". (Holst himself conducted a recording of "Mars" at nearly as fast a pace, but probably to fit the piece on 78 rpm record sides.) The music seemed like a baleful, impersonal machine with a life of its own, just a step or two away from running amok. This may not have been exactly what the composer had in mind, but it was definitely exciting.

The orchestra sounded sensational at each planetary stop: whether in the rapid-fire gossamer woodwind writing of "Mercury" (definitely a "winged messenger" in this performance), the hearty string and brass writing of the "great tune" in "Jupiter," or the rackety, deliberately noisy scoring of "Uranus" -- which was as intriguingly unsettling and impersonal as "Mars." As befits his subject, Holst seldom goes for the warm-and-fuzzy in this work.

The conclusion of "The Planets," "Neptune," features the most famous of Holst's much-copied musical effects: a small women's chorus sings two chords over and over, gradually fading away to nothing. Concentus Women's Chorus (led by Gwendolyn Gassler) had this deceptively simple assignment, and gave those chords a shivery, glassy sound that I think would have delighted the composer. Performances like this RPO presentation of "The Planets" make you realize why warhorses become warhorses -- and why warhorses keep getting performed.

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