On Saturday evening, Feb. 19, the Albany Symphony Orchestra's program theme contained a duality, one personal, the other visual. The personal was a statement of pride in the achievement of one of Albany's sons, Wallingford Riegger, who was born here in 1885 and went on to become one of America's most distinguished composers. The visual was to highlight the Albany Planetarium that incorporates the educational objective of showing and commenting upon the stars, planets and other bodies in the galaxy as they move about the heavens in breathtaking, and seeming perfect order stimulating our senses in wonderment.
The program began with three pieces by Riegger. The first and third, simply titled "Dance Rhythms" and "New dance" could be regarded as bookends to the bigger middle piece, "Festival Overture." All three betray the composer's strivings to exploit many different rhythms, laying them in attractive gardens of counterpoint and instrumental colors. His judicious use of these materials, overlaid with striking motivs, all stitched together with appealing themes produces a compositional style that is original and distinctive. It is always a delight to hear this composer's music.
The main fare of the evening was the suite for orchestra and chorus: The planets, Opus 32 by the British composer Gustav Holst (1974-1934). The work is in seven parts, each given it own name - a platform from which the composer could exercise his imagination to describe them musically. "Mars" is called "The Bringer of War." "Venus" is the Bringer of Peace. "Mercury is "The Winged Messenger," Jupiter," "The Bringer of Jolity (sic)," "Saturn" is the Bringer of Old Age." Uranus" is The Magician," and "Neptune" is "The Mystic."
To heighten the programmatic nature of this work, Maestro Claire Fox Hillard invited former astronaut, Dr. Norman Thagard, to comment upon several of these planets to enhance their characters. The idea was to lead to a more acute perception of affective orchestral treatment in giving personalities to each one in sync with the composer's naming. This allowed Holst to exploit the full range of resources in the modern orchestra. As in any extensive masterwork, contrasts are a salient ingredient. They are all here, and they produce music of excitement, joy contemplation, mystery, joy, peace, and resignation.
There's no wonder that this work is so popular the world over and has remained so from its introduction in London, Nov. 15, 1920. It is not only a study in orchestration. It is also a fine example of form, style, balance, and how to keep interest flowing over extended time. Assiduous examination of it should benefit any serious student of music composition.
Hillard and his crew of merry musicians gave a most adequate and satisfying reading that befitted this music's quality. The off-stage choral music, lead by Marcia Mitchell Hood, was beautifully done, especially the sensitive perdendosi (dying away) at the end.
James Marquis is emeritus professor of music at Albany State University.