OVERNIGHT REVIEW: New West Symphony adds visuals to “The Planets”

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Los Angeles Newspaper Group

Does a piece with descriptions embedded into its movements, such as Gustav Holst’s The Planets, need visuals to supplement the music? In this age where visuals are everywhere, are they helpful in (a) attracting newcomers to concerts and/or (b) making the music more understandable?

Those are among the questions that the New West Symphony is attempting to answer this weekend during the fifth concert of its 20th anniversary season by adding images to its performances of The Planets (I heard last night’s concert in Thousand Oaks; the final performance is this afternoon in Santa Monica — INFO).

Strictly speaking, Holst wrote no program notes for The Planets. As Dr. Richard E. Rodda quoted Holst in his program notes: “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets. There is no program music in them … If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient, especially if it is used in the broad sense.”

That broad concept is what Music Director Marcelo Lehninger and seven local artists took in illustrating the music. Rather than use NASA images as has been done by many orchestras, the NWS commissioned the artists to paint large abstracts, which were projected on a screen above and behind the orchestra.

The visual results were problematic, although the NWS earns kudos for attempting something different for a piece that approaches warhorse status for classical music lover. Lehninger and his ensemble played the work with vigorous moments interspersed with sections of lyrical sweep and appropriately mystery where called for. At the end, however, significant questions remained for this critic and his visual artist wife as to whether the paintings were helpful.

To begin: considering that this project came together quite late in the game — the artists had less than a month to create their paintings. Surely some, perhaps many, of those attending had no idea what was going on. There was no insert in the program either identifying the artists or explaining what each saw in the music (these were abstracts, after all). Artists’ names, photos and bios were projected during intermission but (a) many people were outside during that time and (b) the small typeface rendered much of the text unreadable.

Lehninger also didn’t introduce the concept before the performance. Several people left in between movements either bewildered by the concept or having no appreciation for abstract art.

Having to work with three different halls on consecutive nights must have caused headaches for the technology folks handling the images, and the results showed. The ambient light from above the stage and the music stand lights severely hampered the ability to see some of the images and sabotaged the fades and pans of the technician. Midway through the performance, it occurred to me that this concept would work better outdoors at a locale such as Hollywood Bowl where ambient light issues wouldn’t be in play.

The pattern for each movement was to show small sections of the appropriate painting or panning over larger sections; the entire painting wasn’t shown until near the end of each movement. In the fifth movement, Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, the image rotated slowly, giving it a somewhat psychedelic effect. Given that the paintings were abstracts, it was hard to figure out until the movement ended that one had actually seen the entire painting.

For me, the best melded movement was the final section, Neptune, the Mystic, which had the benefit of a painting by Julie Pinkham that was more visible than others and also from the ethereal voices of women from the Cal Lutheran University Choral Ensembles, intoning beautifully their wordless lines offstage. Unfortunately someone in the audience insisted on breaking in with a bravo while the last notes were dying away, thus spoiling the mystical effect.

Did the painting concept work? Some people around me thought so, others fled so quickly that the applause had died away before Lehninger had a chance to bring the visual artists onstage, if indeed he planned on doing so. It will be interesting to see how the concept works today in Santa Monica.

Prior to intermission, the orchestra played Sibelius’ Violin Concerto for the first time and had Pasadena native Jennifer Frautschi on hand making her NWS debut as soloist.

Frautschi, now in her mid-30s, is well established in the violin firmament. Playing on a 1722 Stradivarius named “ex-Cadiz,” she delivered a quicksilver tone to go with her prodigious technique. She worked on the dynamic extremes of this early 20th century work — at times the pianissimo sections were almost too precious — but she really made me feel as if this was her concerto. The second movement, in particular, was spellbinding.

Lehninger and Co. offered taut, sweeping accompaniment. In those times where Frautschi wasn’t playing, Lehninger plunged forward exuberantly, punching out the attacks for emphasis, only to rein back when Frautschi joined in again.

Frautschi will be soloing in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto next year with the Pasadena Symphony. It will be interesting to see whether she adopts the same tonal style in a quite different work.

• During intermission, the orchestra took the opportunity of having the screen down to screen a number of promos, including upcoming concerts and events, a slide on planned giving, and a slide with the various ways people can follow the orchestra (e.g., Internet, Facebook, Twitter). Smart marketing, from my perspective.
• Prior to the performance, Executive Director Natalia Staneva noted the concert’s synchronicity — this year is the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth and the orchestra’s 20th anniversary. She tried to link The Planets into the mix, calling 2015 the 100th anniversary of its composition. Unfortunately she missed by a couple of years. While part of the piece was completed in its two-piano form in 2015, the entire orchestrated piece wasn’t finished until 1917 and premiered a year later.
• The season’s final concert will take place May 8, 9 and 10 when Lehninger leads a performance of Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor, with four soloists and the Los Robles Master Chorale. INFO

(c) Copyright 2015, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

Facebook Twitter Plusone Pinterest Reddit Tumblr Email