Elgar composed the 30-minute work in 1919, and its mournfulness is said to be informed by the grim toll of World War I. Gerhardt indeed found great emotion in the sorrowful solo passages that start the first movement, and especially in the violent pizzicato phrases that begin the second. The grimness lightened slightly in the third movement, the somber but graceful Adagio, and there were even glimpses of serenity in the fourth movement, the expansive Allegro ma non troppo. But despair returned in the final crashing chords. As Gerhardt took his bows to end the program's first half, the musicians stamped their feet in appreciation. (The cellist subsequently shared his own thoughts on the performance with a post-show report online.)
After intermission, the mood shifted to the mystic as conductor Chosei Komatsu led the group in Gustav Holst's sprawling suite "The Planets," which was composed between 1914 and 1917. Inspired by astrology, Holst based the seven movements on the seven astrologically significant planets. (Earth doesn't count, and now that Pluto -- discovered in 1930 -- is no longer a planet, music fans no longer have to wonder where it fits in Holst's cosmology.)
Individual snippets of "The Planets" are so familiar from films and television commercials that it is bracing to hear the movements performed all together. Especially satisfying Friday night were the opening "Mars, the Bringer of War," with its terrifying crescendos, and the alternately delicate and grand sixth movement, "Uranus, the Magician."
One aspect of "The Planets" that does not come across in the tinny CD from my collection is the work's very satisfying sonic blast. Thanks to thundering organ parts, the Madison Symphony Orchestra at times seemed to press me into my seat. Those bombastic moments stood in contrast to the evening's most striking moment, which came near the end of the suite's final movement, "Neptune, the Mystic." The audience gasped as a wall on the stage slowly slid open, and the unseen Madison Symphony Women's Chorus sang the keening, wordless passages that conclude the Holst suite. It was an eerie, chilling moment.
The concert -- which will be repeated Saturday night and Sunday afternoon -- began with Aaron Copland's "An Outdoor Overture," composed in 1938. It is a good-humored work, alternately rollicking and martial. Its pleasantness made the sorrow of the Elgar, which immediately followed, all the more breathtaking.