Concert Notes

The Planets: An HD Odyssey

Gavin Higgins
b. Gloucester, England / April 18, 1983

Described as “boldly imaginative” and “extraordinary,” Gavin Higgins has been consistently praised by critics for his distinct and visceral compositional style. He comes from a long lineage of brass band musicians. He has continued this heritage with high profile commissions and performances of vigorous, daring brass band pieces. He followed an initial musical training in the family brass band, with studies of horn and composition at the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal College of Music. The early stages of his career saw him receive substantial commissions from such leading orchestras as the BBC and London Philharmonic.

The composer has provided the following note.

“I was asked by the BBC to write a ‘crash-bang-wallop’ fanfare that would open the Last Night of the Proms with suitable clout. Although Velocity is not a ‘fanfare’ in the traditional sense, there are certainly plenty of crashes, bangs and wallops to start the concert fittingly. Velocity has a very simple introduction and allegro structure. The main element of the work — a six-note motif that is heard throughout the piece in various guises — is clearly presented in the opening brass statements and soaring string melody. This music quickly moves into a lively and energetic rhythmic allegro where playful woodwind lines and bells dominate. 

After an extended build, a short euphoric climax on strings provides a moment’s respite before the brass figures from the opening return and the work drives furiously on to its inevitable climax. I have endeavoured to capture the spirit of this celebratory concert and write an optimistic, exhilarating and uplifting concert opener. Velocity was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 for the BBC Symphony Orchestra and first performed at the Last Night of the Proms on September 13, 2014.”

Viola Concerto
Sir William Walton
b. Oldham, England / March 29, 1902;
d. Ischia, Italy / March 8, 1983

This piece ushered in a new, more mature phase in Walton’s career, one where lyricism and melancholy played greatly increased roles. Perfectly attuned to the reserved yet expressive personality of the featured instrument, and astutely scored so that the soloist is never obscured, it also contains Walton’s firmest commitment to date to traditional musical forms.

The two most highly esteemed viola soloists of the day were the Englishman Lionel Tertis and the German Paul Hindemith, the latter even more renowned as a composer. In 1962, Walton recalled that it was celebrated conductor Sir Thomas Beecham who suggested his writing a viola concerto for Tertis. Walton did most of the work on it in Amalfi, Italy, beginning in November 1928.

When it was completed he sent it to Tertis, who “turned it down sharply by return of post, which depressed me a good deal as virtuoso violists are scarce,” Walton recalled.
Edward Clark, head of the music section of the BBC, suggested that Walton turn to Hindemith. Hindemith agreed to première the concerto in London, with the composer conducting. The first performance, which took place on October 3, 1929, appears to have been less than ideal. Nevertheless, it won a warm reception.

Placed first, the slow movement establishes the concerto’s bittersweet personality right from the start. Although it contains passages of drama and animation, it is basically calm and thoughtful. A compact rondo with the bustling, witty character of a scherzo follows. The energy never flags for a second as the viola gets a rare opportunity to let its hair down. The finale is the longest and most elaborate movement. Walton combined new material with themes from the first movement.

Viola Concerto (Revised 1961 version)

  1. Andante comodo
  2. Vivo, con molto preciso
  3. Allegro moderato

The Planets, Op. 32
Gustav Holst
b. Cheltenham, England / September 21, 1874;
d. London, England / May 25, 1934

On a tour of Spain in 1912, a fellow traveler introduced Holst to astrology. The curiosity thus aroused sowed the seeds of this spectacular orchestral suite, his most popular creation. It portrays the astrological, rather than the mythological characters of seven planets in our solar system. He composed it between 1914 and 1916.

Mars, the Bringer of War, presents a harrowing portrait of cold, inhuman power. The brass section takes centre stage, hammering forth harsh blocks of sound over an implacable, motor like rhythmic tread.

Venus, the Bringer of Peace offers total contrast: a calm, tranquil reverie, set far from the scene of any conflict and shot through with gorgeous instrumental solos. Holst associated Mercury, the Winged Messenger with the process of human thought. It flits by with appropriate speed and delicacy. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity has both its jovial feet planted firmly on the ground. Hearty tunes steeped in Holst’s study of English folk dances drive the opening and closing sections. In between rests a hymn-like theme evoking a more ceremonial type of rejoicing.

In the miniature tone poem Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, Holst sets forth his views on the stages of human life: the uncertain beginning, the struggles and heartbreaks of maturation, and finally the emergence in late years of wisdom, with its serene acceptance of imperfection and mortality. 

Next comes the dynamic conjuring act of Uranus, the Magician. Holst puts the orchestra through many spectacular paces, dramatic and grotesquely humorous alike. The suite concludes with the cool, disembodied meditations of Neptune, the Mystic. They arrive as if having traveled across vast distances of outer and inner space.

The Planets, Op. 32

  1. Mars, the Bringer of War
  2. Venus, the Bringer of Peace
  3. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
  4. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
  5. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
  6. Uranus, the Magician
  7. Neptune, the Mystic 

Programme Notes © 2017 Don Anderson

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