On November 24th, the PEI Symphony Orchestra presented the second concert of their 52nd season, “Space & The Rocket,” under the direction of conductor Mark Shapiro. First on the programme was “The Planets” (Opus 32) the best-known work by Gustav Holst, the English composer and astrologist. Of course, Holst is somewhat more famous as a composer but back in the day – say 1914-16ish – he was quite taken with astrology and, although he never went pro, was known to cast charts for his friends.
Holst created The Planets to showcase in seven movements the effects of the celestial bodies on the human psyche. Mars, the Bringer of War, comes in hot, stirring up “incomprehensible violence,” but is followed by Venus, the Bringer of Peace, who smooths things out with gentle oboes and violin, ending with “an extended passage for the violin which gives way to the shimmer of flutes, harp and celeste” and finishing with a motive that sounds like “sparkling fountains or an infinity of stars.” Lovely!
Mercury, the Winged Messenger is very active, evoking information traveling among realms with mercurial changes throughout.
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity introduces folk tunes and dances. This movement also includes music that was used to set the words of “I vow to thee, my country” when the composer realized the existing music fit the commission. Not really associated with jollity but maybe Holst was jolly when he realized he could repurpose the music?
In Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, we hear the inexorable march of time. The music becomes somber, less vigorous, and a certain melancholy, even dread enters as we hear church bells toll and the clock winds down. Uranus, the Magician eases us through our transformation, post old-age.
Neptune, the Mystic enters at last and this movement is mystical indeed, ethereal female voices of an unseen choir rising up throughout and fading away, finally, so imperceptibly that it takes a few moments to realize that we are in silence.
Although Holst himself was unsatisfied with The Planets and felt it took attention away from his other works, it’s an absolutely stunning piece of music — and the orchestra did an absolutely stellar job of presenting it to us.
The post-intermission part of the performance was entitled “Only in (Atlantic) Canada, eh.” OK, it wasn’t officially called that – but it could have been. I mean, when a renowned conductor takes the podium resplendent in a vintage hockey ref sweater and brandishing a giant lobster, you know you’re not in Kansas. No, we’re in PEI, decidedly so. And yet, before we know it, we’re in a third locale and a different time: Saint-Justine, Quebec circa 1946, a world fully dominated by three elements, at least for young boys: the school, the church and the hockey rink. Abigail Richardson-Schulte’s composition is a musical setting for narration of Roch Carrier’s beloved short story, “The Hockey Sweater.” Richardson-Schulte said, “My goal was not to put us in a hockey arena today, but in one of the past.” And there we were.
In capsule form, the story centers on an event from Carrier’s youth, when he was one of so many young boys, would-be Maurice Richards, wearing their Montreal Canadiens sweaters to face off against… another team of Maurice Richards in their Montreal Canadiens sweaters. Catastrophe strikes when a TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS jersey is mistakenly sent instead of the Canadiens sweater Roch’s mother ordered to replace one that he had worn out.
Patrick Ledwell served as narrator for this presentation and there could have been no one better. Ledwell based his narration on that of Carrier himself but brought to the reading his own style and performative gifts.
As my friend Anne said, “Patrick is very clever and funny. He just lifts his shoulder and tilts his head and makes me laugh, which is a very good thing.”
The title for this event was selected to tie in the two segments of the concert, Space (The Planets) and The Rocket (Maurice Richard). Another connection: Both were clearly selected to foster audience appreciation. After The Planets, all the chatter was about how fabulous it was, what a tremendous performance. And at the end of the concert, the audience filtered back out from 1946 small-town Quebec into the streets of 2019 Charlottetown, still smiling.