Arts Review

The Planets

The Planets presented by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra

14th-15th April, 2023

Concert Hall, QPAC


Conductor Shiyeon Sung
Soprano Sara Macliver

Choir The Australian Voices 


GOLIJOV Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra

HOLST The Planets 


Dr Gemma Regan


A cosmic celestial trip into the macrocosm


It was spectacular timing to host the QSO’s The Planets concert during the school holidays, enabling many youngsters who may never have attended a classical concert to relish in the delights of Holst at close hand. The younger clientele included babies and many primary school-aged children, all eager to hear how the planets might sound.


However, Holst composed the suite to reflect not the majesty and physical nature of each of the planets, but instead to emulate their cosmological significance with reference to astrology and the zodiac. 


Each movement focuses on the attributes and influences a planet may have on an individual’s horoscope. Astrology depends on the astronomical movements of each planet in the night sky when viewed from Earth, which is why Earth does not feature in the suite. Pluto is also missing from the suite, although now consigned to the dwarf planet status, it had not yet been discovered in 1914 when the piece was composed, with Pluto’s discovery in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory. 


But, the audience had to wait to hear the cosmological masterpiece, with renowned Australian soprano Sara Macliver treating the audience to Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra by the Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov. All three movements had a Jewish style, influenced by Golijov’s time studying in Israel. 


Shiyeon Sung, the first ever internationally performing South Korean conductor, wielded her baton with large sweeps and flourishes throughout the performance. She is the Principal Guest Conductor of New Zealand’s Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra. The QSO seemed to respond well to her style, but it was disappointing when she didn't take the opportunity to converse or interact with the audience. 


Macliver artfully sang the lullaby of The Night of the Flying Horses in Yiddish, which featured a lovely theme from Nicholas Harmsen’s bass clarinet. Eerie strings and a middle eastern flavour mimic nightfall whilst Natsuko Yoshimoto’s violin galloped across the sky.


The final song, How Slow the Wind, had marimba and vibraphone mimicking the swirling winds. As the tubular bells sparkled, Macliver’s voice soared into the rafters disappearing into absolute silence.


A massive orchestra filled the stage with two harps and six percussionists. There was an audible gasp as the familiar tympanic rumble of Mars, the Bringer of War shook the concert hall. The rhythmic ostinato in 5/4 time evokes an ominous tone to the piece, whilst the military brass cacophony menacingly portrays the onset of war. 


It is the most popular movement of the suite, heavily influencing John Williams whilst composing his soundtrack for Star Wars. The bold and brassy tone echoes with themes from the Planets Suite. You can even hear Darth Vader’s Imperial March and the Star Wars motif hidden amongst Holst's Mars


The violinist’s col legno, where they tap their bows on the strings seemed a little off compared to the famed London Philharmonic Orchestra’s recording, but they made up for it during Venus, the Bringer of Peace with Yoshimoto’s beautiful solo.


The orchestra blasted through the solar system like Elon Musk’s Starship to explore Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. The rumbustious brass motifs swelled and cascaded whilst the triangle sparkled and whirling strings buoyantly waltzed with a wealth of optimism. 


The brass and percussion sections were awesome throughout the suite and the musicians were thoroughly enjoying wrestling the limelight from the usual violins. 


Neptune, the mystic closed a fabulous concert with the invisible ethereal sounds from The Australian Voices choir floating from backstage. Coupled with the gorgeous tinkling from the two harps it ended a cosmic celestial trip into the macrocosm.

You can relive the concert on ABC Classic on the 30th April at 1pm AEST.


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