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Charlotte Symphony’s ‘The Planets’ is so dazzling, it should be seen not only heard

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra performs Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” at Belk Theater in 2018.
Charlotte Symphony Orchestra performs Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” at Belk Theater in 2018.

Every so often the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra proves you have to see classical music as well as hear it.

If you don’t experience Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” at Belk Theater, you might never notice the cellos tapping out a pizzicato SOS while snarling brass march forward in “Mars,” the celesta twinkling like a tiny star amid the strings’ boisterous jollity in “Jupiter,” or the euphonium (a tenor tuba) waddling into the swaggering center of “Uranus” alongside his big bass brother.

I’ve heard at least a dozen different recordings of Holst’s 1916 suite for large orchestra, some of them multiple times. Yet any time I watch it, the visual element brings some fresh sensation. Music director Christopher Warren-Green joins this old favorite to Eric Whitacre’s new “Deep Field” in an apt coupling: Both pieces depict objects in space and end with wordless choruses making gentle, ever-diminishing sounds and fading away to silence.

Where Holst thought astrologically, Whitacre thinks astronomically. He selected images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and mixed them with animation, making his 25-minute composition essentially a film soundtrack to accompany visual dazzlement. We see Saturn sitting like a cue ball amid nicotine-yellow rings, Jupiter bulbous and stippled by what look like lakes of ice, stars moving forward like dandelion puffs rising from a field in a heavy wind.

It’s impossible to judge Whitacre’s music apart from the visuals, and perhaps he wouldn’t want us to. The composer shifts cannily from wispy string textures to throbbing swirls to brash climaxes, all well-calibrated to link ears to eyes. He never develops melodic ideas, sustaining moods instead through atmospheric episodes, until at last our own blue marble swims into view. Earth, seen from so far away it seems pristine, still has the power to make us gasp. Slowly, as the choral voices die, this image dwindles to nothingness – perhaps a comment on man’s stewardship of it.

The CSO has had fun all week with “Deep Field,” from Instagram postings to a Belk Theater appearance by trombone player Tom Burge in a spacesuit. (He introduced the piece by telling us he and Whitacre were college roommates.) Warren-Green asked audience members to download a free “Deep Field” app and activate cell phones at a crucial moment, filling the hall with sound. Disappointingly few people took him up on that, though.

The conductor and musicians filled the hall with sound themselves after intermission, from the thundering rage of “Mars” to the capering glee of “Mercury.” Holst’s piece has seven movements; he did not write one for Earth, and Pluto wasn’t discovered until 1930. Warren-Green made unerringly appropriate choices for each, from the sinuous beauties of “Venus” to the slow, weighty pulse of “Saturn,” which Holst subtitled “The Bringer of Old Age.”

Warren-Green opened the late, lamented Knightsounds series at Knight Theater in 2010 with a stirring performance of the same piece. Perhaps he and the orchestra have added a little bite and gravity to the interpretation, and it remains one of the best things the CSO has done. You owe it to yourself to hear it – and see it – at least once.

“Deep Field”/”The Planets”

WHEN: Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 2 at 3 p.m.

WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $19-$160.

DETAILS: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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