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Cleveland Orchestra's multimedia "Planets" achieves liftoff at Arsht Center

03.22.14
Giancarlo Guerrero
South Florida Classical review

By Lawrence Budmen

A multimedia presentation of Gustav Holst’s orchestral blockbuster The Planets was the audience draw for the final program of the season’s Cleveland Orchestra residency on Friday night. The combination of high-definition film from NASA and Holst’s intergalactic showpiece brought an unusually diverse audience to the Arsht Center, numerous parents with young children supplementing more traditional concertgoers.

While video can sometimes distract from concentrating on a performance, The Planets is tailormade for this type of production. The NASA images succeeded because they effectively reflected the music’s divergent moods. The radar, satellite and rover images, plus some computer animation, were carefully fused with the score’s pulse. Soft-toned pictures accompanied the more lyrical sections while bold vistas of craters and rotating galaxies matched the bold musical climaxes.

Unwittingly Holst created the modern motion picture soundtrack with the lush textures and stirring fanfares in his seven-movement suite, written mostly during World War I and premiered in 1920. It would be difficult to imagine the splashy orchestral pageantry of John Williams’ Star Wars scores or the romantic backdrops of Hollywood composers such as Max Steiner and Franz Waxman without the ingenuity of Holst’s panoramic score.

Giancarlo Guerrero, principal guest conductor of the Clevelanders’ Miami residency, excels at large-scale orchestral showpieces and he was clearly in his element with this massive 50-minute work. The slow, relentless buildup to a full crescendo in Mars was masterfully achieved, the climaxes delivered with brutal force.

In Venus, a plaintive horn melody and evocative violin and cello solos were delicately conveyed. Mercury, the score’s scherzo interlude, was taken at a bright clip, two harps and celesta producing luminous textures. The honeyed tone of William Preucil’s violin solo underlined the secondary melody’s echoes of Borodin or Rimsky-Korsakov.

This score demands a top-notch instrumental performance and the luster of the Cleveland strings and burnished polish of the brass had a field day in the famous Jupiter movement, enhanced by gorgeously colorful, triple images. Guerrero took the movement’s buoyant main tune at a lively pace and moved the central hymnlike theme along at a more rapid tempo, avoiding excessive sentimentality.

He brought a touch of restraint to the martial motifs of Uranus, keeping the reins on the ensemble’s considerable firepower. The clarity and sweetness of the winds in the introductory pages of Neptune were matched by the ethereal offstage voices of the women from the University of Miami’s Frost Chorale (directed by Corin Overland). The well-blended choir seemed to be singing from outer space, splendidly encompassing the long diminuendo that fades into infinity. Guerrero and the orchestra brought Holst’s instrumental colors vividly to life, the transparent variety of dynamics wonderfully clear.

The concert’s first half featured percussion virtuoso Colin Currie as soloist in Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto. Currie’s deft articulation and sheer speed on marimba, vibraphone, woodblocks and trap set were displayed with showmanship and panache, the long cadenza evoking a jazz drummer in a big band at full tilt. A lightweight essay, the concerto lacks the depth and instrumental variety of Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra and Violin Concerto but the score is entertaining and a blast of a workout for a skilled percussionist.

The program opened with a light stepping account of the Overture to Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, the Turkish effects of cymbals and percussion potently articulated without over dominating the small-scaled orchestral forces.