Holst’s The Planets and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring: is it a match made in concert heaven? Perth audiences who heard them both over the weekend at the Perth Concert Hall with WASO and guest conductor Simone Young would have been able to decide whether this combination of masterpieces makes for a good evening at the symphony. I would expect most would say that it made for a truly exciting, memorable experience.
The concert hall was filled to the brim with audience and musicians alike, as both pieces require a huge orchestra that nearly spills off the stage. There was plenty of buzz and anticipation, not just because of the pieces themselves, but also because Perth does enjoy having Simone Young in town. And with the opening notes of “Mars,” Young soldiered ahead with her ambitious program, rallying the troops under her baton.
After a fierce march through the first movement, Young abandons her baton in favour of gentle guiding hands for “Venus,” and then picks it up again for a flying start with the fleet-footed “Mercury” followed by the rollicking “Jupiter,” the latter delivered with such hearty energy that you really felt it difficult to keep yourself from applauding at the end of the movement. (No one did, thankfully.) This energy took an ever-so-slight dip with “Saturn,” which is to be expected, but when “Uranus” bounded into the hall with its big, imposing chords, we sat up again and took notice. “Neptune” and its eerie offstage women’s chorus leaves us unsettled and holding our breath, suspended in anticipation for the concert’s second half.
The Rite of Spring is the raison d’etre for this concert; it was Young’s idea to put these two classics together, but of course, Stravinsky’s Rite is the feature work in any program, let’s just admit. It’s never not revolutionary, even a century later. Once that bassoon sings its first primal notes like a bird fluttering its wings at dawn, we’re sent into a different realm, one that is frighteningly beautiful, one whose landscape is constantly shifting under our feet. Where Holst often draws fairly melodic and straightforward lines between his musical ideas (as is in the case of the earworm-ish melodies in “Jupiter,” for instance), Stravinsky never lets us have it so easy. We are constantly jarred, shocked and taken by surprise.
Young is powerfully commanding as she swings, hops and kicks her way through the piece. We don’t have the spectacle of a ballet to go with the music as its first audience did, but the conductor is a fairly decent one-woman substitute as she lets the music move her head to toe. And the orchestra maintains its fervent, unflagging, relentless pursuit of Stravinsky’s incredible score, driving every syncopated rhythm mercilessly, diving deep into its dissonant chords. The Rite is visceral and triumphant.
This might’ve been the opportunity of a lifetime to hear both of these eternally popular works played live together, and it certainly lived up to expectations.
Reviewed 5 August, part of City of Perth’s Winter Arts Festival.