Every time Jun Märkl shows up on the ISO/Circle Theatre podium, we find ourselves enjoying a special treat: savoring the best conducting of any guest artist appearing here. With a somewhat jerky arm/baton motion, the Munich-born conductor beats time to a farthing; his players follow it with an nth degree of precision. Nowhere was this podium style more evident than in the concluding work of this second in a three-concert series dedicated to the "Cosmos," Gustav Holst's popular The Planets, Op. 32. This suite astrologically surveys the seven solar-system planets (excepting for Pluto--discovered 14 years after the suite was written in 1916, and now revealed as too small to rate as a planet. It's a lonely asteroid).
For the opening number, "Mars, the Bringer of War," Märkl had his large orchestra whipped into a phantasmagoric frenzy, it rhythmically pulsating to a stern, almost ravaging beat. Though considered a no-no, some in the audience couldn't abide not applauding at its tumultuous end till they saw that the hall, filled to capacity, failed to follow suit.
Evoking starkly contrasting moods, the ensuing number, "Venus, the Bringer of Peace," languidly serene in its impressionism, has nonetheless an insistent though quiet rhythmic pulse as Märkl brings out different orchestral choirs with exquisite control of the dynamics.
In the following "Mercury, the winged messenger, those woodwind/string triplet figures wander up and down the orchestral compass, mixing with common time. "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" is the most light-veined of the seven parts and has the suite's best known tune. And by now, Märkl, while still wielding his baton, also had his audience in the palm of his hand.
"Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age," followed by "Uranus, the Magician" and concluding with "Neptune the Mystic" appear to follow the pattern (though probably not intentional) of Debussy's three Nocturnes for Orchestra (1899). That is: "Saturn" goes with "Nuages"; "Uranus" goes with "Fêtes"; and "Neptune" goes with "Sirènes," both the latter using a woman's wordless chorus. The chorus's entrance in "Neptune" begins the musical high point in the whole work as the chant repeats a figure while fading away into silence. Throughout the entire suite, Märkl's control was absolute.
Guest baritone Wolfgang Brendel, 67, in keeping with the cosmos theme, sang the short aria "Ode to the Evening Star" from Wagner's opera Tannhäuser after intermission. Brendel's light, somewhat thin vocal delivery possibly made the aria seem shorter than it actually was.
The concert began with another apropos work, Paul Hindemith's Die Harmonie der Welt (The Harmony of the World) Symphony (1951), written to honor the work of scientist and astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and cast in three movements. Here modernist construction is in full flower with an orchestra as big as that used in The Planets. For me the most meaningful part of the entire work was in the middle movement employing ISO principal Karen Moratz' flute solos. Otherwise the harmonies failed to resolve sufficiently into common chords to remove the cacophony common to this era and style. Like Bartok, Hindemith ends his movements on a clear, tonic cadence but without any prior indication of its arrival. Jan. 29