British composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was an interesting character. He flirted with socialism, joining the Kelmscott House Socialist Club in his youth, where he rubbed elbows with William Morris and Bernard Shaw. He took part in the English folk music revival at the end of the 19th century. Thomas Hardy, Walt Whitman and Max Muller were among the many literary figures who had an influence on Holst’s music. He even learned Sanskrit in order to compose a series of operas and hymns based on the Rig Veda. Perhaps most intriguing of all was Holst’s fascination with astrology, which he took up in 1911 and kept as a “pet vice” the rest of his life, casting horoscopes for friends and family.

Astrology also served as the inspiration for what would become Holst’s most famous and influential work: “The Planets.” Written over the course of three years, from 1914 to 1916, the seven-movement orchestral suite is a symphony of Roman gods and goddesses in their astrological and symbolic forms: Mars, the Bringer of War; Mercury, the Winged Messenger, etc. Emotional and evocative, “The Planets” stunned 1920s audiences with its wide spectrum of musical styles and moods. Its appeal has not lessened through the decades.

 


The New West Symphony’s dynamic young music director,
Marcelo Lehninger, conducts the orchestra.
The Symphony is currently celebrating its 20th Anniversary Season.
Photo Meghan K. Sadler

“I consider “The Planets” to be one of the most often performed pieces of music,” attests Samantha Theisen, director of education and community engagement for New West Symphony. “And a lot of modern composers have been influenced by Holst.”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the writing of “The Planets” and the New West Symphony Orchestra — itself celebrating a 20th anniversary — is commemorating the event with a performance of the full suite starting March 27. It should be an occasion to remember.

“Although this piece is 100 years old, it is still very modern,” says New West Symphony’s music director Marcelo Lehninger. “Many composers were influenced by and took compositional tools from Holst and “The Planets” to use in programmatic music, or music that describes something.” With that history in mind, New West Symphony has added a visual element to the aural: During the performance, seven local artists will present art inspired by the planets and music “scored” in each movement.

It’s not uncommon for productions of the suite to include photographic or film footage — musicians have played along to images from the Hubble Telescope or 2001: A Space Odyssey. And while it makes sense that a piece called “The Planets” would tap into the Space Age zeitgeist, it’s the influence of planetary bodies on the human psyche that Holst aimed to capture in his seminal work.

“These were mood sections,” Theisen explains. “[Holst] was more interested in the myth of each planet’s name rather than the space connection. He also was hanging out with a lot of artists at the time he was writing this music.”

Mary-Gail King (Mars), Sigrid Orlet (Saturn), Pat Richards Dodds (Jupiter), Janet Neuwalder (Mercury), Diane Nelson Gold (Venus), Julia Pinkham (Neptune) and Elana Kundell (Uranus) listened to Holst, letting “The Planets” inspire them as they created the paintings that will serve as a backdrop for the orchestra . . . and a focal point for the audience. It’s a technique that has served Theisen well in the past.

“I used to teach a course for sixth graders where we created art while listening to music. And years ago New West Symphony did something similar with Ravel’s “Sheherezade,” she recalls. “Music is so evocative of imagery. My hope is that this means it will be a much more emotional experience for the audience.” These original works of art, along with select prints by the featured artists, will be available for purchase throughout the series of performances.

In addition to “The Planets” suite, New West Symphony will present Concerto in D Minor by Jean Sibelius featuring two-time Grammy nominee Jennifer Frautschi on violin. A native of Pasadena and alumna of Harvard University, New England Conservatory of Music and the Juilliard School, Frautschi has performed worldwide since her recital debut at Carnegie Hall in 2004. She is considered one of the most adventurous and well-rounded artists of her generation, and should be a delight to the ears of audiences who turn out for her performance.

The Holst/Sibelius double-header is likely to be a bright spot in New West Symphony’s Masterpiece Series, which takes on greater meaning this year as the orchestra celebrates 20 years of bringing classical and contemporary music to Ventura County. With the 100th year of “The Planets” New West Symphony’s 20th, it would seem the stars are indeed in alignment.


New West Symphony will perform “The Planets” on Friday, March 27, at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center and Saturday, March 28, at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. For more information and tickets, visit www.newwestsymphony.org.