The Pasadena Symphony presents "Musical Mysteries"
Debussy's Nocturnes and Holst's The Planets
Review by Ross Anthony

On the 19th of January 2002, Pasadena's Civic Auditorium hosted two classical pieces with "universal appeal." Appropriately, prior to the performance concert-goers enjoyed heavenly vistas via telescopes provided by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society. Two telescopes were available when I arrived. The first tracking Saturn; though only viewable through the lenses in harsh white against black, the rings could clearly be seen (albeit as one ring). Remarkably, the telescope slowly panned the sky as to counter our planet's revolutions. Such a maneuver seemed rather complicated to me, but the hosting astronomer set me straight when she said, "It's really rather simple, a clock drive tracks the scope ... since the clock attempts to replicate the Earth's revolutions anyway." (I paraphrase.)

A much larger (wider) scope magnified Jupiter for our viewing. Through it we could clearly see that mammoth planet and four of its moons neatly spread in a line.

As if that weren't appetizer enough, concert-goers were able to sit in on a rather passionately giddy discussion about music and planets carried by Matt Golombek (Chief Scientist of Mars Pathfinder Mission) and Musicologist Byron Adams. Here's a sample from that chat (again, paraphrased slightly):

BA: Holst's PLANETS is noticeably missing PLUTO.
MG: Well it was discovered in 1930, twelve years after Holst composed this piece. In fact, Pluto may be demoted from being an actual planet...
BA: Holst wondered what it might be like to be a star alone in outer space. He was a very odd man, a very curious man who was studied in numerology, algebra and even Sanskrit and Greek. Perhaps he was trying to recreate what outer space sounds like. What do you think it sounds like?
MG: Well sound requires a medium to go through. One of the experiments on the 1998 Mars Lander, which of course did not succeed, in fact had a microphone so we could have perhaps heard the wind of Mars. ... Maybe exploring space isn't so different than exploring music or math.

After the conclusion of this discussion and the replacement of an "under the weather" second bassoonist, the Jorge Mester lead the Pasadena Symphony orchestra into Debussy's NOCTURNES.

Light and eerie, beautiful spiraling violin passages ... oddly similar to a skipping compact disk. Then a hard beat followed by a muted brass impossibly delicate on volume. I scour the orchestra from trumpet players and cannot find them. A recording? No, as their segment concludes the group of off-stage trumpeters once again steps on stage. An excellent volume control effect! Eventually the beat builds to a magnificent pounding march, then drops too soon into a folly of flutes and then a patchwork quilt of various musical textures all under the same beat. A sweet, almost humorous, send-off ends the second movement. With vocalists integrated among musicians, the third and final movement sings with drifting, waving "Ahhh's" (similar to those used later in the "Star Trek" theme). Swirling violins float through the cosmos.

An intermission later, Holst's PLANETS are set in motion without a big bang.

Pounding timpani and commanding brass, proud, rhythmic, military (much like a Strauss piece which became the "2001: a Space Odyssey" theme), provide the backbone for grand swells giving MARS atmosphere.

Serene melodies punctuated with mysterious question marks. Innocent, childlike exploration into the green fascinating unknown. Concludes with music box chimes.

Even more playful, but maturing. Repetitive, ultimately boring.

Near staccato theme commands this marching band, almost circus-adorned movement. The theme echoes over itself. Eventually finding a warm groove, the momentum drops into a lush field of green wheat melodies. It's a wholesome mission of community survival over stormy weather. Eyes of farmers swell as they run their hands through the hair of the children for love of God and country. But the prairie is a valley and the movement takes us back up the other side into disjointed patches on the opposite mountainside.

Slow and calculating, menacing; a shark under thick water. A snake slithering through oil. Dark and potentially dangerous, but suprisingly gentle. Western harps impersonate eastern kotos.

Spontaneous and whimsical, but powerful, even silly. Fantastic like that unforgettable scene in Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" where aliens communicate with human's via a glass-shattering kaleidoscope of lights and melody. Enveloping, involving ... it'll take you away.

Wafting strings weave in and out of the stepping human voice, singing only vowels.

I scripted the above notes during the actual performance without considering the titles of each movement. Perhaps my interpretation will provide interesting comparison to each of HOLST'S movement's titles given here:

Mars, the bringer of war
Venus, the bringer of peace
Mercury, the winged messenger
Jupiter, the bringer of jollity
Saturn, the bringer old age
Uranus, the magician
Neptune, the mystic.

Also curious, besides Pluto, Holst also left out one other planet - Earth.

As for the Pasadena Symphony -- completely refreshing. Very fine intonation and direction, only one or two forgivable slips from perfection. While our balcony seats noticeably lacked sufficient knee room, they provided both an excellent panoramic view and rich full acoustics.

Jorge Mester, Conductor. Pasadena Symphony with Women of the Pacific Chorale.

Pasadena Civic Auditorium
300 East Green Street, Pasadena, CA.

(This bit sent in by a Neil Williams MA(Mus), PGDip(Hum), BA(Hons), Managing Director, Classical Collection Ltd, Tamworth, England, UK, Life Member of the 'Friends of the Holst Museum, on 2/23/06): Holst never regarded his work as unfinished. On the contrary, the planet Pluto was discovered in 1930, some four years or so before Holst's death in 1934. Holst expressed not the remotest interest in adding a Pluto movement, and for very good reason. The Planets is absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with space and the astronomical aspects of our solar system: it is a study in the astrological aspects of the planets in terms of the characters of the planets relative to their astrological influences reflected through him (Holst) and upon mankind generally. It embraces a life study of the human condition from the violence of youth in Mars to the mysteries of death and beyond in Neptune. These character studies were influenced by Holst's own great interest in astrology which was particularly fuelled by two books by the astrology author Alan Leo, namely, The Art of Synthesis, and What Is A Horoscope and How Is It Cast? He read and discussed these books with his friends Arnold Bax and Clifford Bax (the composer and author, respectively) whilst on holiday in Spain with the brothers in 1913, a short while before he started composing The Planets. Bearing this in mind, Pluto has no place either in the suite or attached to the suite, given that the planet Pluto has no astrological significance at all (as astrology predates the planet's discovery). This is also why there is no Earth movement, because astrology is about the reflections of planetary influences upon the inhabitants of planet Earth (the astrological basis of The Planets has been researched and written about most eruditely by fellow Holst scholar and member of the Holst Trust, Raymond Head).

CLICK HERE for a preview of the PDQ BACH VS. PASADENA Concert coming to the Civic Auditorium on March 29th, 2003. (Btw, the first five of you to buy tickets for this PDQ event will get a FREE SIGNED ROSS ANTHONY BOOK "Ross Anthony." See preview for details.)

  • Debussy's Nocturnes and Holst's The Planets. Copyright © 2002.
  • Jorge Mester, Conductor.
  • Pasadena Symphony with Women of the Pacific Chorale.

Copyright © 2002. Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit:

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Last Modified: Saturday, 16-Sep-2006 08:00:24 PDT