ST. PETERSBURG — The Planets is the sort of piece where a stopwatch could come in handy to be ready for the big moments. Everyone has a favorite moment in Holst's tone poem, whether they know it or not. Even listeners hearing the work for the first time — and it is a great introduction to orchestral music — recognize the themes. Film composers from John Williams on down borrow from it.
The movement that Holst himself liked best was Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, and under Stefan Sanderling on Friday night, the Florida Orchestra reached that planet 27 minutes, 50 seconds into the piece. The gentle, ominous music was worth the wait, featuring four flutes, harp duet and chimes.
The most familiar movement is Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity (19 minutes, 37 seconds in), with its irresistible tunes, including one that Holst later turned into a patriotic hymn.
Sanderling opened the program with a pair of dreamy Debussy works: Prelude a L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune and two of the three movements of Nocturnes. It was a good night for wind play, including acting principal flute Clay Ellerbroek in the solo that opens Faune; English horn Andrea Overturf's haunting solo in Nuages of Nocturnes; and principal oboe Katherine Young throughout.
Holst completed his interstellar opus in 1917, long before Pluto was first sighted in 1930. The final movement, Neptune, the Mystic, fades away to nothing, with celestial vocalizing by women of the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay. A few years ago British composer Colin Matthews wrote an "appendix" called Pluto, the Renewer. It would have been interesting to hear that.
And why wasn't the third Nocturne performed? Sirenes features women's voices and was the inspiration for Holst's use of them in The Planets.
Friday's concert was played for a modest turnout at Mahaffey Theater, where the program will be repeated tonight for the regular St. Petersburg subscription audience. Normally, the orchestra would have given its first of three performances for Tampa subscribers at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, but the preferred venue there, Morsani Hall, is occupied this month by The Phantom of the Opera.
So, given the lack of an acceptable venue at TBPAC (Ferguson Hall is too confined acoustically for a sonic showpiece like The Planets) the orchestra gambled that Tampa subscribers would travel over the bay to hear a popular work, and a lot of them did. But there weren't enough other ticket buyers in these hard economic times for the arts.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.