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A musical journey into the planetary system

May 15, 2014

ALASTAIR Willis is no stranger to Doha or to the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra (QPO), which he conducted in the past and then last Sunday during the sold-out concert at Qatar National Convention Centre (QNCC). The orchestra played two of the popular pieces from the standard repertoire Gustav Holst's 'The Planets' and Carl Orff's 'Carmina Burana'.

'The Planets' was accompanied by a film by Duncan Copp that uses imagery from US space agency NASA to add another dimension to the performance. Filmmaker Duncan Copp directed and produced 'The Planets: An HD Odyssey' in 2009, which marries NASA's high definition planetary imagery with a live performance of Holst's seven-movement orchestral suite.

'The Planets' is Holst's sonic representation of the mysterious solar system through his seven-tone poems, each in the form of a movement, bearing the name of a planet. One wonders why only seven and not the nine movements to represent all the planets that we know?

'Pluto the missing planet in Holst's scheme of composition was actually not discovered until the work was commissioned in the year 1916, said Willis, while talking to Qatar Tribune. The exclusion of Earth was due to the fact that Holst, who was deeply influenced by astrology, considered Earth as the reference point for the observer.

'The suite of 'The Planets' has always been close to my heart, said Willis. Talking about the connection, he continued, 'My first conducting teacher Adrian Brown had his first conducting teacher Adrean Boult, who in turn, was a friend of Holst and was the conductor who premiered 'The Planets'.

Holst wrote 'The Planets' Suite for a large orchestra, employing instruments to create a rich colouring, which corresponds to the astrological character of the planet believed to caste its influences over our life. Holst was deeply influenced by the subject of astrology and the mysticism of eastern philosophies.

Willis, who has worked with the QPO in the past, expressed delight on the completely sold out concert and shared his experiences, while conducting rehearsals with the members of the QPO. 'The orchestra has matured over the short period of time ever since it was formed and will mature further in the years to come.

According to him, it really takes years to fine-tune an orchestra to reach the level of top orchestras. 'Some of the best known orchestras have been playing for over hundred years together, to attain an identity of their own, beyond those of the people who made these orchestras. The more they play together, the more cohesive the whole orchestra becomes, he added.

But having said this, he also pointed out, 'However, what is still the case I think is that not everyone in the orchestra has played 'Carmina Burana' and 'The Planets', which is considered a part of the standard repertoire for European and American orchestras.

'In a way that is a challenge but the flip side is that it is also very exciting, because it brings freshness to it. And this energy is amazing which I love having this inquisitiveness in the members to find out more and to be open to hearing new ideas, he said.

'They are flexible and mouldable . a treat for any conductor, said Willis.

When asked about his biggest challenge during this project, he replied, 'Carmina Burana in Europe and America is so popular and so frequently played that sometimes it evokes feelings: 'Oh, not Carmina Burana again' .

'People have known this piece so well that sometimes it is boring to play one more time . He added, 'My biggest challenge usually is to inspire the musicians and the orchestra to have them motivated and try to find ways so that the performance doesn't look too mechanical.

'The Planets' on the other hand, is composed of seven pieces, which can be performed individually or all together. The first movement, Mars, evokes the feeling of terror and fear, while second movement, Venus, embodies tranquility and peace. The last movement is a female chorus, which fades out, giving a feeling of the unknown.

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Source: Qatar Tribune

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