Review | NAC Orchestra’s stellar performance of The Planets

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It was a phenomenal night of endings and new beginnings for the National Arts Centre (NAC): the orchestra capped off both 2023’s Mentorship program and the tenure of outgoing CEO Jayne Watson with a stellar concert featuring Gustav Holst’s famous composition The Planets, as well as the Canadian premiere of Catamorphosis by Icelandic symphonist Anna Thorvaldsdóttir.

The May 18 concert began with a rendition of Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin du printemps. It’s one of the last works written by the French composer before her death at the young age of 24, with the orchestral version posthumously finalized by her sister, the massively influential 20th century music teacher Nadia Boulanger.

The composition leans heavily on the triangle, quick percussion, and trumpet in the beginning before transitioning into a more violin-centric melody. Though short, it presents a great opportunity for the orchestra to demonstrate their perfect instrumental balance and control: the string, brass, and woodwind sections were all on equal footing no matter how loud or soft they sounded, and they masterfully fluctuated between frenetic rhythms and tones.

For them to capture the soft, frolicky, mystical feeling of D’un matin du printemps is impressive given the overwhelming size of the orchestra. The regular 60-person ensemble was accompanied by around 50 NAC Mentorship program students from around the world. The violin section alone comprised 40 musicians, so their ability to modulate volume was especially noteworthy.

The bleak history of Boulanger’s work complements Catamorphosis. It’s a fascinating 20-minute soundscape filled with many atmospheric techniques: low rumbling percussion and tuba that graduates into a frantic sound, long-held single woodwind and cello notes that feel like they eventually become part of the room, and violin stings and swoops that emulate mechanical screeches.

Conductor and music director Alexander Shelley (Photo Credit: Curtis Perry, courtesy of the National Arts Centre)

Humans are aware of the great environmental impact of heavy machinery and pollutants, Thorvaldsdóttir says through this work, but they feel like they’re far enough away from the consequences that environmentalism doesn’t dictate their lives. As such, ominous segments are broken up by brief tender melodies. The composition sounds like it should be terrifying, but the orchestra displays just enough temperance to not overwhelm the audience. It’s transfixing and sublime, like watching a cataclysmic force of nature cut short the lives of many from a safe distance.

This message transforms The Planets, originally composed by Holst with no clear message other than appreciation for the growing trends of astrology, astronomy, and Greek mythology in the early 20th century. As people endure the destruction of Earth and scramble for solutions, the NAC looks into the unknown future using unconventional instruments like metal sheets, tambourines, and tubular bells.

The violins yet again display their exceptional coordination in Mars. Using a collegno technique (striking strings with the wood part of the bow), they’re sure not to override the brass instruments, and they merge their staccato rhythms with those of the drums. The brass section creates a sweeping, journey-like feeling in Jupiter that pairs wonderfully with the precise and technically demanding cello melodies, while still giving space to violins to execute their evocative swells. All the instruments parrot each other’s motifs in the fast-paced and chipper Mercury, showing their incredible synchronization as an orchestra.

The recorded nature of the choral singing in the final movement, Neptune, provides a ghastly disembodied feeling. They’re the only personification in the entire program, so their physical absence leaves the listener with a final foreboding sense of dread for the future of humanity. Yet the NAC’s unparalleled ability to pull more than a hundred seasoned performers and up-and-coming music students together suggests there’s still hope for the planet given enough cooperation.


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