Symphony hits new heights with ‘Planets’

Register Guard, 10/21/2005, Concert Review [original]

The Eugene Symphony, giving its second concert in four days, featured an outstanding young viola player Thursday at the Hult Center.

While Monday’s program highlighted music from the 19th century, Thursday’s concert drew on the first half of the 20th century. Both evenings were conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero.

The opener Thursday was about as far from the typical overture as one could get: Anton von Webern’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30, composed in 1940. Webern was a prominent member of Arnold Schoenberg’s circle who took Schoenberg’s technique of 12-tone composition in new directions.

Webern’s music is typically thin in texture, often with only one note sounding at a time, and with melodic lines that span large intervals. In the Variations, these traits are combined with orchestral colors that constantly shift from one instrument to another. A steady rhythmic pulse is not projected, and the tempo changes constantly.

All this adds up to music that does not reach out to a listener. Concentration is necessary in order to perceive the underlying beauties of the Variations. Guerrero and the orchestra gave a careful, controlled performance that allowed the piece every opportunity to speak to the audience. Not everyone may have enjoyed the music, but it was very much worth hearing.

Nakathula Ngwenyama then came on stage for William Walton’s Viola Concerto, composed in 1938-39 and revised in 1962. Its three carefully crafted movements display a variety of moods and characters, sometimes meditative, at other times very lively. The meditative side, perhaps especially suitable to the viola, begins and ends the first movement and comes full circle to close the entire concerto.

Ngwenyama’s playing of the solo part was excellent. Her technical command of the instrument is next to faultless, and her musicianship outstanding. Walton’s concerto is one of the biggest challenges a viola player can encounter, and she came through with flying colors. Once again, the Eugene Symphony has brought us a remarkable young soloist who will continue to be heard from for a long time to come.

Guerrero and the orchestra collaborated sympathetically with Ngwenyama in a well-coordinated performance. The concerto at some points is scored quite heavily, and the solo viola easily can be overwhelmed by the orchestra. This danger was on the whole avoided in this performance, thanks to careful restraint by Guerrero and the orchestra, which played very well through the entire piece.

The program concluded with its feature work, “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, composed 1914-16. In its seven movements, Holst attempted to depict the astrological significance of each of the planets (Earth was not included, and Pluto had not yet been discovered).

Whether the astrology has merit, it inspired Holst to compose a piece that has become enduringly popular. Its echoes can be heard in just about any sci-fi movie one cares to name.

To project the widely varied characters of the seven planets, Holst called for an extra large orchestra, including an organ and such unusual instruments as a bass oboe. The large brass and percussion sections emphasize the overwhelming, brutal force of “Mars, the Bringer of War,” while the shimmering, subdued calm of “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” is just as effective in its very different way.

A wordless women’s chorus is heard from offstage in the last movement, “Neptune, the Mystic.” It is an enormously colorful score that makes great demands on players and conductor.

Guerrero and the orchestra met those demands admirably, aided by the women of the Eugene Symphony Chorus, led in this performance by Jerry Hui. Guerrero knows how the piece should go, and he communicated his ideas to the orchestra effectively. The players responded with enthusiasm in their solo passages, in their various sections and as an ensemble.

All in all, it was one of the most spectacular performances the Eugene Symphony has presented, an emphatic climax to a busy week.

Peter Bergquist is a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon School of Music. He reviews classical music for The Register-Guard.

— Peter Bergquist

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