Windham Orchestra presents ‘The Planets’

BRATTLEBORO — On Sunday, March 27, at 3 p.m., under the star-studded canopy of the Latchis Theatre, the Windham Orchestra will present Gustav Holst's The Planets.

The orchestra, led by Music Director Hugh Keelan, will present two concepts of “space” - outer space, represented by Holst's enduringly popular orchestral suite, and acoustic space, represented by the late Bennington College composer Henry Brant's work On the Nature of Things.

Johann Strauss II's electrifying Thunder & Lightning Polka will bring the audience solidly back to Earth as the orchestra is joined by a youth orchestra, composed of students from local elementary school bands and the BMC's Music in the Schools stringed instrument instruction program.

Completing the program are two concertos featuring the 16-year-old winners of the Orchestra's 25th Annual Concerto Competition for young musicians: Domenico Dragonetti's Concerto for Double Bass, featuring Martin Jaffe of Northfield-Mount Hermon School, and Ralph Vaughan Williams' Suite for Viola and Small Orchestra, featuring Rachel Finlayson of Etna, N.H. The youth competition has been generously funded since its inception by Brattleboro violinmaker Douglas Cox.

The Planets, Op. 32, is a seven-movement orchestral suite by English composer Gustav Holst, written between 1914 and 1916. Each movement of the suite is named after a planet in our solar system and its corresponding astrological sign. All of the planets are represented, with the exception of Earth, which is not observed in astrological practice.

“Holst had a fascination with astrology and the associations from mythology that the planets carry. Of course, these elements are interrelated: Mercury, the planet, is small and travels very fast (hence the fleet-of-foot messenger), Mars looks red (bloodshed), Venus appears clear, gleaming and beautiful in the sky...and so on, stranger and more remote out to icy Neptune,” observes Keelan. “In Holst's music, we meet a set of vividly painted characters, fascinating characteristics, human and god-like qualities, not so much a scientific exploration of our solar system.”

Mars, the Bringer of War, is a relentless, unforgiving juggernaut of fighting and destruction. The Romans saw astronomy's “Red Planet” as the god of war. From this mythology came the astrological associations with virility, paternal authority, and the sign Aries. We hear an implacable rhythm that counts 1-2-3-4-5 over and over again in almost every bar. At the end, that rhythm is hewn to pieces before our very ears, the fragments lying dead on the ground.

Mars loved the goddess Venus, the Bringer of Peace, who exemplifies exactly the opposite characteristics to those of Mars - beauty, love, fertility - and who is associated with the signs Libra and Taurus. The two movements together are a perfect musical expression of complementary natures.

Mercury, the Winged Messenger, is the first fast music of the suite; he is light, always with something to report or bring. The music tells us that Mercury's winged heels never touch the ground. Mercury is astrologically associated with Gemini.

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity overflows with good nature and generosity. One tune is like a handholding circle dance. Some music winks with good-natured mischief, while other music shouts out, “Over here! Come join in the fun!” One famous tune seems to tell us that revelry and abundance are to be taken very seriously, and represent a necessary and truthful part of life. These attributes are also of the sign Sagittarius.

The music from here on in takes unexpected turns, starting with the gatekeeper to some very strange worlds. Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age, was Holst's favorite music from The Planets. Saturn, associated with Capricorn, speaks of inevitability, karma, and the specter of death with a harshness that imperceptibly melts into some degree of acceptance and warmth.

Uranus, the Magician, is allied with the sign Aquarius. This movement is raucous and showy with spells, illusions, puffs of smoke, trapdoors, and gaudy distractions. The music suggests we are dealing with a trickster, a charlatan, but the culminating vanishing act is truly inspiring and frightening. Against our will, we are enthralled by this magician's skill.

Next comes Neptune, the Mystic. It is harder to count 1-2-3-4-5 to this movement than it is to Mars, but a closing symmetry is formed with the return of 5/4 meter. Neptune relates to Pisces - to iridescence, allusion, delusion, extremes, and all that is intangible. The music is the first instance of a “fade out” in classical music, as Holst calls for an offstage women's chorus to close the cycle, repeating and getting softer to the point of inaudibility. In this performance, instead of a women's chorus, the orchestra uses the great Estey organ in the First Baptist Church.

“I hope Holst would be delighted at the thought of this work being performed under the cobalt heavens of the Latchis Theatre's ceiling, with its constellations and astrological signs!” reflects Keelan.


American composer Henry Brant (1913-2008) taught at Bennington College in Vermont for 24 years. On the Nature of Things is a spatial orchestral tone poem derived from Scene 4-Lucretius in Brant's spatial opera The Grand Universal Circus (1956).

Brant was a composer fascinated by two things: blending and combining sounds with extraordinary practical finesse, and concert works in which groups are spatially removed from one another. The distinct instrumental components we encounter in On the Nature of Things are a trio of flute, clarinet, and bassoon; strings (without basses); a solo horn; a duet of flute and glockenspiel; a line of double basses; and a solo oboe. Both audience and performers have to figure out the relationship of the individual music of each component to the entire work.

The Windham Orchestra has a proud tradition of educating and encouraging young musicians, which is particularly evident in this concert. The performance features a youth orchestra and the two winners of the Orchestra's concerto competition for youth. In addition, local schools have been invited to a special children's version of the performance on Thursday, March 24, at the Latchis Theatre.

Tickets are $15 for the general public, and $7 for students and seniors. Tickets can be purchased by visiting, by calling the Brattleboro Music Center at 802-257-4523, or by stopping in at Maple Leaf Music in Brattleboro.

There will be a reception at Adagio Trattoria following the concert. For more information about the Windham Orchestra, visit

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