This concert definitely felt like a "best-for-last" performance of Holst's work, ending with some of the SSO's best playing this year.
In the silence and darkness of TCU Place on Saturday night, the long-armed shadow of Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra conductor Eric Paetkau led the audience soaring through our solar system.
Saturday’s concert was anchored by Gustav Holst’s classic suite The Planets — a fan favourite repeated every so often by the orchestra here in Saskatoon — and the orchestra delivered a strong performance that got better as the evening progressed.
Though, to be fair, it got better after a literally slow start. Mars, the Bringer of War — the first and probably most recognizable of all the parts of the suite — was not the bombastic and robust opening it usually is for The Planets. The tempo was a bit slower than the militaristic piece usually goes, and it lacked the characteristic sharpness that drives Mars forward.
But, besides a slow start (and one errant trumpet blast in the silence), the concert truly blasted off following Mars with the help of Canadian composer Heather Schmidt and her thematically apt Lunar Reflections, a work (like Holst’s) divided into parts based on celestial bodies — in Schmidt’s case, differently labeled moons.
In a creative twist, the SSO combined The Planets and Lunar Reflections to interpose themselves between one another throughout the concert, with each of Holst’s grandiose movements separated by the shorter but no less magnificent piece of Lunar Reflections. Snow Moon and Thunder Moon, the final two “moons” of Lunar Reflections, were just as striking in every way as Holst’s timeless pieces.
The SSO really hit their stride about halfway through the first half of the concert, with the gentle and mysterious Pink Moon giving way to the nearly whimsical and zipping strings of Mercury, the Winged Messenger. From there it seemed every song made the orchestra swell with skill and confidence, Paetkau’s conducting flashing through the darkened theatre as projections of the actual planets provided by NASA shone behind the musicians.
This concert definitely felt like a “best-for-last” performance, however — the final three pieces of Uranus, the Magician going into Schmidt’s Thunder Moon and finishing off with the hauntingly beautiful Neptune, the Mystic might be the best 20 minutes of music the SSO has played this calendar year. There is something to be said for an orchestra willing to take a bit of a risk with a well-known classic, and it seems safe to say mixing The Planets with Lunar Reflections was an artistic risk.
But at the same time, you can’t argue with the results. There were magnificent moments where the emotions of both sets of works seemed to match up perfectly (like Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age followed by the softer Snow Moon). Where they were different — like the powerful Thunder Moon near the end of an otherwise gentle finish to The Planets — the juxtapositions seemingly heightened the rest of the music in a brilliant way.
Though it took a while to get into the air, the SSO blasted into the stratosphere with a thoughtful, creative, and thoroughly enjoyable performance.