'Planets' gather at NMAI
WASHINGTON - In conjunction with the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the National Museum of the American Indian and the oddly named Space Philharmonic, NASA presented a concert performance of ''The Planets'' as part of its Fifty Years and Beyond celebrations.
The museum's Tim Johnson, speaking informally just before the exhilarating massed sounds of an orchestra in full-attention tune-up mode called an audience of hundreds to order, said NMAI jumped at the chance to continue building synergies with NASA by hosting the concert. The hard-science space exploration agency has begun to heed and spotlight indigenous knowledge of the Earth and its climate.
But if the concert evening featured numerous references to Native cosmology and the natural world of all its relations, another collaboration lay closer to hand. The performance of one of the best-known compositions in the classical repertory was a perfect table-setter for one of the most intriguing entries on Indian country's Washington calendar - ''Classical Native,'' Nov. 6 - 11 at NMAI, featuring new original compositions and virtuoso turns on classical music standards.
''The Planets'' is celebrated 90 years after its premiere, but not its composer. Even in the arguably dwindling world of Western classical music, at least one unassailable truth remains: Gustav Holst, 1874 - 1934, is the most underrated name in a pantheon that stretches from Godric of old Wales to contemporary America's Christopher Rouse and the late Louis W. Ballard.
Only this suite for large orchestra keeps Holst before the public. But as demonstrated for maybe the millionth time June 25, its magic shies away from narration. The excellent program notes made a go of it, almost stating the case plain - Holst's ''Planets'' are astrological concepts, not facts of astronomy doubling as departure points for starry rhetoric, meant-to-be-awesome slide shows of seeming marbles in space, or conduits into the technical professions. The music - mighty-sinewed, sleek as speed and bedizened with continual seamless veins of sonic beyond - only suffers from textual interpolation between the movements.
A brimming cup of sensual moods kept passing from the hands of conductor Emile de Cou and an assemblage of master musicians, drawn from Washington's esteemed National Symphony Orchestra but not performing under its banner, due to union rules as rumor had it.
The original ''Planets'' suite ends with the first known closing fadeout in through-composed music, as the score directs a back-room door to close by slow degrees on the hushed vocalise of a women's chorus. And if the opening rumble of the ''Mars'' movement has supplanted the imperishable five notes of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, second movement, as music's most popular ostinato (successively repeating) passage, it is because historically excluded classes have learned from Holst in turn: witness the tributary riffs on its theme by rock 'n' roll originals from Cream (''White Room'') to King Crimson, Led Zeppelin and Frank Zappa.
As with any rendition of ''The Planets,'' the NMAI audience of French, Germanic, Andean, Hispanic, English and American tourists and onlookers, as well as mostly Washingtonian American Indians, seemed to hang on the harmonics of double harps. But the initiated also knew to look down from the museum's open-galleried upper floors toward the back section of the ensemble, where NSO percussionist Joe Connell, along with an unidentified fellow-maestro, made transcendent entrances on the xylophone, the glockenspiel or orchestral bells, the tubular bells or chimes, the tambourine and the pitched metal or Tibetan singing bowl.
The ''Classical Native'' concerts at NMAI in November have come by a hard act to follow. But if hope thrives best by example, let the great expectations begin.