We didn't see this one coming. Not at the intensity that pervaded the audience of 1755 (or so), who filled every seat in the Circle. If British composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) had been alive to hear Friday's performance of his suite, The Planets for large orchestra, Op. 32 (1916), he might have held this most famous work of his in much higher esteem than he reportedly did. Krzysztof Urbański left no stone unturned in bringing this musical survey of the seven astrological planets to an emotional pitch no one prior on the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's podium has achieved.
First of all, no other conductor has dramatized the extremity of contrasts pervading the seven sections. In "Mars, the Bringer of War," the orchestra was as metrically and brutally loud as I've ever heard it - a cacophony of the metaphoric ugliness of war while maintaining Holst's steadfast accessibility to tonal harmony: Everyone "got it."
Next came "Venus, the Bringer of Peace," with Urbański moving his players softly and dreamily through the upper string and flute registers, other soft instruments chiming in, all with a slow, tick-tock duple meter.
In "Mercury, the Winged Messenger," fleet passage work was the order of the day as notes cascaded from the bottom to the top registers and back again. Urbański's dynamic control in both sections was, once again, a marvel of subtlety.
"Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity," is the suite's most popular movement for his introduction to what later became a patriotic hymn. Prior to the hymn, we hear a rhythmic joyfulness proclaimed by the full orchestra where, once again, our conductor's management of loud and soft was startling.
Another dramatic contrast ensued with "Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age," the suite's longest section, depicting in an even slower tick-tock the inevitability of growing old. Soft and sad, it leads to a climactic moment, once again with our music director's supreme management of crescendos and diminuendos, then fading into serenity - and acceptance. For the first time in the Circle Theatre, we heard its recently acquired Wurlitzer organ intoning low pedal points at the end of "Saturn," lending depth to its serenity (Holst wanted it there.)
Yet another stark contrast came with "Uranus, the Magician," in which satire prevails, leading to a military-like march, mocking a similar point in Debussy's "Fêtes" from his Nocturnes for orchestra - not necessarily Holst's intention. Urbański moved his forces inexorably to another climax-then-repose.
Then came the most moving seven minutes in the suite, "Neptune, the Mystic," during which a wordless, offstage female chorus intervenes. Rather than placing the chorus backstage, as is usual, Urbański reportedly experimented with its location, finally placing it back of the audience in the Circle's uppermost lobby. To render its balance optimum with the orchestra, he had each singer place her open hand two or three inches in front of her mouth while singing. The result was that the chanting seemed to be coming from both everywhere and nowhere. I couldn't locate them; they seemed to emanate from the mystical cosmos, the effect captured here as in no other performance I've heard, live or recorded. At the end, only the chorus remains, fading into nothingness.
Urbański began this best-of-the-season program with Samuel Barber's also-most-popular Adagio for Strings (1936). Once again, our leader slowly and carefully built up his strings from an almost soundless beginning to a climactic point, and receding to a quiet ending, the string complement showing a special sheen and a good balance throughout.
If not for The Planets, Karol Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 61 (1933) might have taken center stage. ISO Concertmaster Zach de Pue played his solo part with the skill of many touring marquee solo performers -- he was actually superior to some. Through all four connected movements, this 25-minute work has soloist and orchestra playing together most of the time in a well integrated, well constructed fashion - a Polish work our Polish conductor was quite familiar with. Who says I don't like an all-20th-century program? March 16-17, Hilbert Circle Theatre.