Why I Should Not Second Guess A Composer


This weekend it all began anew with the opening of the season for the Madison Symphony Orchestra.  The main draw was Gustav Holst’s The Planets.  To say it was spectacular would be appropriate if the word was then underlined ten times in bright red ink.  A massive orchestra with chairs placed tightly to allow for a powerful performance–even the tall pipes required a stepladder to play.  With just small LED lights on the stands so the music sheets could be seen the main stage lights went off for a 50 minute film using images from various sources including the Hubble which was projected on a huge screen which was hung over the pipes for the organ—which was also played.

As I watched this all play out a most unusual and secondary show took place.  James and I always sit on the second mezzanine balcony so from there the images from the conductor was most artistic.  With all the lights out and only a very dimmed floodlight on the conductor from above and off to his left it then created his shadow on the stage floor of his arms moving along with his back and forth movements.  It was akin to how Alfred Hitchcock used shadows in his films—it was simply art all by itself apart from what I was hearing.

At the ending of The Planets I thought—(I am always choreographing things in my head) the chorus should have small lights that resembled stars and walked out from various points among the audience.  Instead they were off stage with only a sliding type door opened to allow for their voices to be added to the show.  I really thought the way they performed was really lacking volume and presentation.  But then I got home and as usual James and I started talking about the performance and he located online the following which blew my idea apart.

“Neptune” was one of the first pieces of orchestral music to have a fade-out ending, although several composers (including Joseph Haydn in the finale of his Farewell Symphony) had achieved a similar effect by different means. Holst stipulates that the women’s choruses are “to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed”, and that the final bar (scored for choruses alone) is “to be repeated until the sound is lost in the distance”. Although commonplace today, the effect bewitched audiences in the era before widespread recorded sound—after the initial 1918 run-through, Holst’s daughter Imogen (in addition to watching the charwomen dancing in the aisles during “Jupiter”) remarked that the ending was “unforgettable, with its hidden chorus of women’s voices growing fainter and fainter… until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence”.

The less I know means the more I need to learn.  And so it goes.

It was reported that all three performances were sold out this weekend.  Overture Hall has over 2,200 seats.    Madison can be proud for having such a place where wonderful music and memories are created.

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