Space, a Musical Frontier: Symphony will unleash power of ‘The Planets’

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The night sky inspired composer Gustav Holst to create his signature work, “The Planets.”
Completed in 1916, the piece gives personality to Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
Why not Pluto?
It hadn’t been discovered yet.

Why not Earth?
Let Steven Byess, Tupelo Symphony Orchestra’s musical director, answer: “The inspiration for the ‘The Planets’ was astrological rather than astronomical. When you study astrology, significance is assigned according to a planet’s position and its relationship to Earth.”
TSO will perform Holst’s masterpiece, along with music by J.S. Bach and Alexander Arutiunian, on Saturday at the Tupelo Civic Auditorium.
Byess said the show will feature the most musicians ever assembled for a TSO concert. About 78 to 80 musicians will create what Byess called “a massive sonic force.” A concert usually requires about 65.
Why the large number? Holst.
“The Planets” starts with “Mars – The Bringer of War” because it was written during World War I.
Byess described the movement as “one of the most menacing pieces that’s ever been written in the history of music.”
It’ll be followed by “Venus – The Bringer of Peace,” which should be a balm after the relentless assault from “Mars.”
“Mercury – The Winged Messenger” is a busy, fast movement that features two different rhythms at the same time.
“The best description of Jupiter is exuberant,” Byess said. “It’s almost like a rustic dance. There’s something very large and friendly and grounded about Jupiter.”
“Saturn – The Bringer of Old Age” embraces calm solemnity, then “Uranus – The Magician” will be sneaky and mysterious.
Tupelo High School’s Women’s Chorus will join TSO for the last movement, “Neptune – The Mystic.”
“At the very end of the piece, a female chorus begins to sing. They’re off stage. They’re not supposed to be seen,” Byess said. “It gives it a siren-like quality. At that point, Neptune was the edge of our solar system. It’s like a gigantic, musical question mark about what lies beyond. It’s so exotic, this music is.”

Something more
It’ll be more than a musical experience. During the performance, a screen will show images taken by the Hubble telescope and other NASA deep space probes.
“Now that we have photographs and footage of landing on some of these planets,” Byess said, “it’s astonishing that the music Holst wrote, just in his imagination, seems to suit the character of each planet.”
In addition to “The Planets,” the plus-sized symphony will be on display for the raw power of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.”
Written for the organ, the music will be instantly recognizable to most.
“It’s a passionate, almost maniacal piece that in a lot of ways is more at home in horror movies,” Byess said. “It’s so familiar and so dramatic. It was the piece that Walt Disney chose to be the first piece in his ‘Fantasia’ film in its first incarnation.”
The symphony also will present “Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra” by Alexander Arutiunian.
“It’s a very flashy work. It has Gypsy, Russian and Armenian materials in it,” Byess said. “The slow sections are soulful with beautiful melodies, and there are sections that are angular with really exciting rhythms from the orchestra and the soloist.”
John Schuesselin, TSO principal trumpeter, will take center stage for the concerto.
“One of the things I love to do when it’s possible is to feature some of these really, genuinely phenomenal musicians in the Tupelo Symphony,” Byess said. “The orchestra is so fortunate to have John as principal trumpeter, and this is his first chance to let the audience hear his incredible talents.
“It’s an exciting work that I think the audience will enjoy very much, and one that pairs well with this bold and brassy program.”

Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@journalinc.com.