The Planets at Symphony Hall Will Change Your Life, Trust Us

This program has never been performed in Boston before, and Boston Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander says it never will again.


Illustration by Kyle Clauss

Illustration by Kyle Clauss

The first thing you need to know is, The Planets has nothing to do with the planets.

Benjamin Zander, longtime conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, cannot stress this enough. We’re seated in the study of his home, which appears to have been plucked from a Thomas Kinkade painting and lovingly placed in Cambridge. There’s a palpable warmth to it, and I’m unsure if it radiates from the half-dozen desk lamps illuminating countless pieces of sheet music festooning mahogany credenzas and leather ottomans, or the cup of tea Zander boiled fresh for me upon seeing my plaid pants. “I can see by your trousers we share some British heritage,” he laughs.

For the first time in its 37-year existence, the Boston Philharmonic will open its season Thursday at Symphony Hall before making stops at Sanders Theatre and Jordan Hall. To mark the occasion, Zander, 76, will conduct two of the most complex, challenging, and thrilling pieces in the orchestra’s repertoire: Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathrusta—a tone poem based on the seminal Nietzsche treatise, which most people recognize as the piece Stanley Kubrick famously used in his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey—and Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

“The two pieces speak to each other very powerfully, because they’re both essentially about the same thing, approached from a very different place. They’re about the evolution of human beings,” Zander tells me. “It’s very touching the way that they interact with each other, and I love this combination. It’s never been done in Boston before. These two pieces have never been played together.”

Holst, an English composer, began writing the The Planets in 1914 and premiered it four years later, in the twilight of World War I. Each of the suite’s movements is named after one of the planets in our solar system, characterized through the lens of astrology, rather than astronomy. It opens with “Mars: the Bringer of War,” a plodding, vengeful piece that Zander says his orchestra will play slower and more menacingly than Holst originally intended. It’s immediately complemented by “Venus: the Bringer of Peace,” the yin to “Mars”‘ yang.

It’s followed by “Mercury: the Winged Messenger” and “Jupiter: the Bringer of Jollity,” arguably the suite’s most well-known movement. I tell Zander that “Jupiter” has been used in a Reese’s commercial, and he laughs.

“I believe it. Well, it’s been used quite wrongly for a lot of films about space travel. Holst wasn’t interested in that at all. He was interested in astrology and the character of each of the planets, and the way it manifested itself in the human psyche,” Zander says. “I think it’s misjudged, because it’s not about that. It’s not about the planets. It’s not about the other world. It’s about the inner world.”

“Saturn: Bringer of Old Age,” a soaring, dramatic movement evoking time, tradition, maturity, and death, the ultimate limit, was Holst’s favorite. Zander knows this because he was a student of the composer’s daughter, Imogen, who he says didn’t particularly care for “Uranus: The Magician.”

“And then there’s a moment of panic in the middle,” Zander says, after imitating a “positively arthritic” double bass for me. “And the bells, and the syncopation, and that’s the panic and terror of death actually dramatized in the music. Then it comes at the end to a place of calm, of acceptance, a kind of joyous place beyond death. So all of that is in the music. It’s nothing to do with the planets as a physical object. It has to do with the psychology. It’s fascinating, isn’t it?”

For “Neptune: The Mystic,” the suite’s final movement, Holst made special note in the score that a women’s chorus was “to be placed in an adjoining room, the door of which is to be left open until the last bar of the piece, when it is to be slowly and silently closed.” The effect would render the audience unable to discern whether the chorus had not yet fully dissolved away, or if it was merely ringing in their ears.

“[Holst] worked very hard on that end. Always. He rehearsed it and rehearsed it and rehearsed it,” he says. “And what we’re doing, we have a chorus up in the second balcony in the outside, and then they walk down away from it, down the stairs to Huntington Avenue, until the sound disappears. You know when you watch a balloon going up, and you don’t know whether you’re still seeing it? My dream is that the audience will be listening more intently at the end of the piece than they’ve ever heard. There will be a silence in Symphony Hall like never before, because they’ll be listening. Everyone will say, ‘Has it ended? Has it not ended?'”

Holst didn’t include Earth, and Pluto wasn’t discovered until 1930, a decade after the first public performance of The Planets. In 2000, British composer Colin Matthews penned “Pluto: The Renewer,” and dedicated it to the late Imogen. But the piece was never accepted as canon, and the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto to a dwarf status in 2006. “I don’t worry about that,” Zander says. “I have to conduct the seven that exist.”

The Boston Philharmonic’s performance will make use of Symphony Hall’s 4,800-pipe Aeolian-Skinner organ, installed in 1949. I ask Zander which movement will most prominently feature the organ, for which he displays an effusive pride. For a moment, he thinks I’m asking which organ he’s talking about, and his brow furrows in hurt before I clarify.

“At the beginning in ‘Mars,'” he says. “There’s only one note in the final one. It’s the most beautiful A-flat that suddenly appears in ‘Neptune.’ It’s absolutely gorgeous, and I marked it. I said, ‘This is the only note.'” He flips through the oversized pages of his score, miniature Post-It notes falling out in haste. “The great chords at the end of ‘Uranus’ are organ—terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. This page,” he points. “This is about the most terrifying page in music.”

While he explains the philosophical underpinnings of Also Sprach Zarathrustra and what statement Strauss makes about the folly of man with a mere key change, I place my empty tea-cup and saucer on the ottoman and not-so-stealthily wipe the tea biscuit crumbs from the corners of my mouth. I ask him what he wishes would buzz around inside the heads of those who come to Symphony Hall Thursday for the one-of-a-kind performance in the days and weeks that follow.

“This concert has never happened before, and it’ll never happen again. It is an experience you can only have in the concert hall. It is the powerful confrontation of two works that deal with the biggest issues available to man, played by a great orchestra, in one of the greatest—maybe the greatest—concert hall in the world, with the greatest organ of any concert hall in the world,” he says, his voice dissolving away like the “Neptune” choir.

“And it’s just going to happen one time.”

Tickets are still available for Thursday night’s performance at Symphony Hall. Zander will give a conductor’s talk at 6:45 p.m. sharp, prior to the 8 p.m. performance.