"A Dancer's Dream" at the New York Philharmonic
Anna Clyne's "The Violin" at Federal Hall

Traveling through "The Planets" with the New York Philharmonic and NASA

by Melanie Wong


As part of their Summertime Classics Series conducted by the boisterous Bramwell Tovey, the New York Philharmonic presented The Planets: An HD Odyssey, at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall Friday evening. The program—including works by John Adams, Jacques Offenbach, Josef Strauss, and Gustav Holst—was a perfect cocktail for reviving an audience after a hot summer day; however, it turned out to be the Philharmonic themselves who needed rejuvenating. Although the program was chockfull of audience-pleasers, the Philharmonic’s lackadaisical playing was a letdown. The group managed to gain some energy for the main event (Holst’s The Planets), but their performance was tainted by a myriad of technical flubs.

The evening opened with John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a minimalistic fanfare inspired by the composer’s impromptu joyride in a Lamborghini. Here the Philharmonic lacked the oomph necessary to bring Adams’ self-described “orchestral juggernaut” to life.

Jacques Offenbach’s quirky and enchanting "Ballet of the Snowflakes," from his opera Le Voyage dans la lune (The Trip to the Moon) followed, along Josef Strauss’ rich and romantic Sphärenklänge (Music of the Spheres). The Philharmonic’s disappointingly lackluster approach continued:  their energy lacked gusto, their musicality felt canned, and their dynamic range consisted of little more than mezzo piano and mezzo forte. Even Tovey’s comedic interludes and animated conducting couldn’t bring them out of their shells.

There must have been a saint backstage with heaping cups of espresso during intermission, because when the Philharmonic returned to the stage for The Planets, they were refreshed and reenergized: "Mars, the Bringer of War" was formidable; "Venus, the Bringer of Peace" was tranquil; "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" was exuberant. The brass—the vital element for an effective execution—roared majestically throughout, and the choir’s imperceptible entrance at the end of "Neptune, the Mystic" was mystifyingly beautiful.

Although Holst’s movements are titled for their astrological counterparts, the suite was accompanied by a semi-synchronized digital projection of astronomical HD photographs provided by NASA. The images of the corresponding planets and their sweeping landscapes provided for a complete sensory experience.

The main issue with the Philharmonic’s performance of The Planets (albeit a big one) was the consistency with which each soloist fumbled their part. I would take an energetic performance over a technically perfect one any day, but for a top-tier orchestra's performance, it seems unreasonable to think that you wouldn’t have both. If only the ensemble had played with as much vitality and unity as they did in their encore: music from Star Wars. The Philharmonic finally brought their A-game for the popular movie music and left the audience smiling—a perfect ending for a summertime concert.