Lawrence Renes spins “The Planets”
Lawrence Renes‘ uncommonly graceful gestures served Edward Elgar well Friday evening. The guest conductor led the Milwaukee Symphony in a reading of Elgar’s Enigma Variations notable for its nuance and beautiful curvature of line. This music has its aggressive moments, but for Renes it is mostly about a certain melancholy reserve. Within that reserve, Renes and the orchestra found subtle and infinite variety of color and placement of weight within phrases.
Renes appeared to have thought out every detail. Usually, I just listen and don’t watch the conductor much, but from my vantage I could see how particular and clear Renes was with every motion. And I could hear how specifically the musicians responded to those gestures. The resulting richness of texture and expression made endlessly fascinating a piece that often bores me because, after all, it doesn’t really go anywhere. With a reading such as this, the theme and 14 variations need not add up to anything. Simply living in the moment, one variation at a time, was more than enough.
Renes’ limbs and torso, held gently but firmly for Elgar, became tightly bound and explosive for Mars, the first of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. The MSO read the tension in his body as rhythmic tension in the music, which was exactly right. You could feel it in the crackling way the timpani and the strings, col legno, tapped out a military tattoo, insistent as a Morse code command to attack.
Holst did not compose portraits of the physical planets. He meant to express the traits ascribed to those born under Zodiac signs associated with seven planets. Thus, Venus, Bringer of Peace, passes as a watery Impressionist gurgle worlds apart from the violence of Mars.
I’ve heard this piece many times — it’s almost Pops concert fare — but it never came alive for me as it did Friday. The slow movements — Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age, and Neptune, The Mystic — especially struck me. In both, Holst established mesmerizing fogs of harmony, spaced and colored in ways that turns superimposed compound chords into disorienting atmospheres. Then he drops one chord out and leaves us in a world of sparkling clarity.
In the end, Neptune dwindled to the distant, offstage voices of the women of the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, tilting back and forth on the minor third that is the most basic molecule in the The Planets. Perhaps the singers viewed a backstage video screen as they responded to the slightest tilt in Renes’ right hand. The gesture grew smaller and smaller and the sound grew fainter and fainter until it disappeared.
This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 26-27. For tickets, visit the Milwaukee Symphony‘s website or call the Marcus box office, 414 273-7206.