‘The Planets’ a dramatic performance by Redwood Symphony

The Redwood Symphony gave an exciting performance of Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’ last Saturday.

The Redwood Symphony, in its concert Saturday at Cañada College under Music Director Eric Kujawsky, proved again it’s the little — or not so little — community orchestra that could.

What it could do is give an exciting performance of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” This is at least the third time the orchestra has played this massive suite, and the musicians have got the hang of it. It was a dramatic and lucid performance.

“The Planets” consists of seven large tone poems for large orchestra, each long enough to be a significant concert offering on its own. Each depicts the character traits associated with an astrological conception of one of the heavenly messengers.

The suite begins with the ruthlessly harsh “Mars, the Bringer of War,” ends with the ethereal “Neptune, the Mystic,” and encompasses five other sets of varied personalities in between.

To be sure, this nonprofessional performance was not flawless. Some of the many instrumental solos came out a little wonky. The double-reed woodwinds tended to be very loud for their surroundings. This was more startling than it was problematic. It made the music feel quite bracing.

There was some difficulty with the electronic organ. After being unusually intrusively loud in Mars, it turned downright reticent in “Uranus, the Magician,” when a huge organ glissando is supposed to make the magician suddenly disappear up his own sleeve. The lack of a large sound here diminished the magic.

But any problems were outnumbered by delights. Beautifully in-tune swellings from the violins were satisfying to hear. The flutes were excellent throughout. The quiet but lurking ostinato that begins “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” for three regular flutes, one bass flute and two harps was outstanding: crisp and sinister, just as it should be.

The most interesting aspect of this performance came with Neptune. This is scored to include wordless singing from an offstage female chorus, but rather than hire a choir to wait around for 40 minutes and then sing where nobody could see them, Maestro Kujawsky improvised. At the break before the movement, half a dozen female string players, who could be spared, quietly slipped offstage so they could form a small chorus, augmented by two synthesizers.

The combination of the natural women’s voices and the artificial synthesizers made for an eerie, unearthly sound. But, as if there’s one thing Neptune is, it’s unearthly, that was all right.

For all its magnitude and complexity, Holst was relatively easy. Mozart, though: Mozart is hard. His music looks so simple on the page, which leaves nothing to hide behind. It requires the utmost musicianship to do well.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488, proved difficult for Saturday’s performers. It ran along pertly, and it wasn’t tedious, but it had no Mozartean character. The strings were thin and wobbly in pitch. The winds were loud and inelegant. Soloist Jeffrey Jones had all the notes down — on a score in front of him, unusual for a pianist in Mozart — but his playing was expressionless and lacking in emotion. The hardest thing is to convey a sense of grace and beauty in these simple notes. The absence of that here was particularly regrettable in the slow movement, one of Mozart’s most exquisite Adagios.

The concert began with two short, fast, lively pieces for full orchestra, the “Dance of the Tumblers” from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “The Snow Maiden,” and a 1930s jazz composition, Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse,” which later found its way into the soundtracks of Warner Brothers cartoons. These two were played with great verve in the spirit that the Redwood Symphony would bring to “The Planets.”

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