Boston’s Philharmonic gets fired up for two mystical classics

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, Classical Source, and International Piano; and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 24.10.2015

The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra opened its season this week with rousing performances of two works that had never before been combined on a program for Boston audiences – Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and Richard Strauss’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. Conductor Benjamin Zander, rightly proud of the pairing, called the pieces “perfect companions”.

Symphony Hall was packed to the ceiling and the youngish audience was wildly enthusiastic over the Holst, perhaps less so on Zarathustra. (Strauss can be more difficult to penetrate on first hearing.) Only the opening sequence, which was borrowed for the film “2001: A Space Odyssey”, truly resonated with the crowd.

Zander did his usual pep talk beforehand, sharing his infectious energy and humor, growling, snarling and banging chords on a piano to translate Strauss’s emotions into music. The power is all about Strauss’s use of c-major, he said. “Zarathustrais the most amazing music Strauss ever wrote.”  He acknowledged that a challenge was to master Strauss’s “very thick textures”. 

The music is based on Nietzsche’s best-known work, of which Strauss chose eight passages out of the eighty Nietzsche wrote. Most have heavy metaphysical themes but the penultimate selection, “Dance Song” breaks away into a charming Viennese waltz, which the strings played exuberantly, leaning into their instruments and digging their bows into the strings. The magic and humor surfaced naturally. Some passages are “as good a representation of laughter as I can think of in music”, Zander said.

Zander told me separately that he initially had hesitations about trying to handle the Strauss masterpiece. “I wondered how we were ever going to wrestle the giant Zarathustra to the ground. I was wrong – the orchestra ate it up.” He called the score “fiendishly difficult”.

Besides the clarity of Zander’s beat and the synchronization of the augmented (“humonguous”, in Zander’s terms) orchestra, several soloists stood out. Particularly noticeable was concertmistress Joanna Kurkowicz for her lyrical tone in solo passages, and James David Christie at the Aeolian-Skinner organ. Christie provided subtle baseline support and erupted in occasional dominant surges to add drama.

The Symphony Hall organ was one of the reasons the Philharmonic sought to perform there. Both pieces last night contained substantial organ parts. In fact the two pieces require almost identical expanded instrumentation. The stage, normally the home for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was extended to accommodate the extra strings, reeds, brass and percussion.

Strauss strived to produce emotional comfort in this work, and, as Zander put it, he created lush romantic harmonies with the strings divided into 16 voices, and” the soft balm of the organ in the background”.  To my mind, Zander’s players gave Strauss what he would have wanted. 

After intermission, the complexion of the evening changed radically. “The Planets”, a suite of some considerable originality and refinement, lifted off with thumping, marching “Mars”, while the orchestra, fired up for the event, let loose percussion and brass in fff. The cavernous space of Symphony Hall was filled with Philharmonic sound and Zander held the players together in the driving 5/4 rhythmic structure.

Holst’s inspiration came not from the planets themselves nor their godly meaning to the ancients. He was interested in astrology and found material there for what Zander calls the seven “character studies”. Thus Mars is the vigorous aggressive model while Venus (next in Holst’s sequencing) represents desire, love and beauty.  In stark contrast, Venus treats us to lyrical horn passages and exquisite strings. Mercury offers lilting melodies, fleet of foot, elusive. Zander strived to make it “sound like magic”. Uranus was another romp, although Holst’s daughter, who was Zander’s harmony and music theory teacher in England at age 11, professed to consider it inferior. The Philharmonic thought otherwise in this performance and proved it. 

Holst brings the seven planets to a soft landing with Neptune, the mystic planet. He lets this final piece fade away with a celestial offstage women’s choir, performed by the Radcliffe Choral Society. The fadeout is crucial to the illusion of deep space, and Zander held the audience in thrall as the voices progressively became inaudible. Then for a full minute he stood immobile on the podium in total silence. Even the packed house didn’t stir. Or cough. It was a precious moment.

After this reflective mood, the audience rose to its feet for a genuine and prolonged standing ovation. True to form, Zander weaved his way through the orchestra picking out his soloists for a bow before finally taking his own. There was stomping and whooping.

Another version of this review appeared on Boston Musical Intelligencer at


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