ROBERT BRUCE SMITH: Fly up, up and away with the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra

By Robert Bruce Smith

TUPELO – Cosmic wonders … a dead genius’s cataclysmic masterpiece … 20th century trumpet brilliance … these were the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra’s unusual musical offerings Saturday night at the Civic Auditorium.
TSO music director Steven Byess introduced each selection, beginning with J.S. Bach’s thunderous tour de force, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Believed to date from the early 1700s, this instantly familiar two-movement work for organ is a standard with horror flicks, mad-scientist movies and numerous rock groups.
For orchestral performance, Byess chose the same Leopold Stokowski transcription used in Walt Disney’s 1940 silver-screen classic, “Fantasia.”
Delivered with full and righteous power by the TSO, Bach’s music proved once again that it can rise above even the most banal trivialization.
The Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian’s exotic Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra was next, featuring Ole Miss professor John Schuesselin as soloist. Few works for trumpet and orchestra can showcase a trumpeter’s virtuosity quite like the Arutiunian – and fortunately, Schuesselin was admirably suited to the task.
A graduate of the acclaimed Eastman School of Music, his youthful presence belied a prodigious technique capable of breathing real life into the concerto’s lyrical Eastern European melodies and bluesy middle section.
After intermission came “The Planets.”
Our ancestors believed each planetary “wanderer” among the unchanging stars of night somehow shed its influence over human destiny – Mars was red and warlike; Venus, verdant with romance and love; etc. Fascinated by these ancient beliefs, the English composer Gustav Holst produced his most renowned musical embodiment, “The Planets,” as World War I geared up in nearby Europe.
Exceptionally popular since its 1918 London debut, “The Planets” also requires exceptional resources: offstage female choruses, a beefed-up orchestra of about 80, plus celesta, organ, two harps, and exotic percussion. An overhead NASA film, with stunning close-ups of our enigmatic planetary neighbors, made Saturday night’s experience a double pleasure. Minimal stage lighting – just the musicians’ softly glowing lamps – further enhanced “The Planets’” otherworldly effect.
So with 80 musicians grouped in almost candlelit intimacy below, and NASA’s planetary images spinning colorfully in the darkness above, Byess began Holst’s grand cosmic adventure.
Mars was first, stridently militant, “Bringer of War”; then Venus, “Bringer of Peace”; Mercury, “The Winged Messenger”; Jupiter “Bringer of Jollity”; Saturn, “Bringer of Old Age”; and Uranus, “The Magican.”
Finally, almost 2.8 billion miles distant from the Sun, came the brilliant blue world Holst characterized as “Neptune – The Mystic.” Briefly imaged by Voyager 2 in 1989, our solar system’s farthest planet remains shrouded in mystery, and for it Holst reserved his most softly ethereal effects. As the work drew to an end, Calvin Ellis’ Tupelo High Women’s Chorus chimed in mystically while Neptune faded into the star-flecked infinity of deep space.
A hushed silence followed, then thunderous applause.