On Wednesday, July 18, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra welcomes London's St. Paul's Girls' School Choir for an historic centennial performance of Holst's The Planets on the Esplanade.
With classical music, it can be easy to forget that real, living, breathing people once actually sat down and wrote the pieces we love. Perhaps if you’re lucky enough to get a glance at Mozart’s handwriting, the human genesis behind this music becomes more tangible. But more often than not, the music, especially in performance, can feel as though it’s just always been there.
On Wednesday, that divide between history and the present shrinks, as the Boston Landmarks Orchestra performs Holst’s The Planets, in collaboration with the St. Paul’s Girls' School choir.
If you think you're unfamiliar with Holst's The Planets, you're probably not. It is one of those works that makes frequent appearances in our modern lives. One movement, “Jupiter: the Bringer of Jollity,” is particularly well-known, with a swelling, hymn-like center that leaves you thinking John Williams could have written it for Jurassic Park (in fact, the first movement, “Mars: The Bringer of War,” was the source for Williams' “Imperial March” from Star Wars).
Gustav Holst wrote The Planets in 1918 while he was a music teacher at London’s St. Paul’s Girls' School, well before the cinema (and cinematic music) took its ubiquitous hold on the 20th century. Each of the seven movements represents the respective astrological powers of the planets in our solar system. As Landmarks puts it, “Holst’s masterpiece explores the astrological influence of the planets on human personality and behavior.”
If you’re into horoscopes, this is the piece for you.
“Jupiter” might be the Planets’ most famous movement, but it’s the final movement that makes this Wednesday’s performance with Landmarks special. Titled “Neptune: The Mystic,” it is dreamlike and vague (much like that planet’s ephemeral astrological association), and calls for an all-girls' choir. As "Neptune" reaches its midpoint, those voices subtly rise above the orchestra, singing a vocalise that shifts like waves on a moonlit night. And then, just as quietly as they began, the girls' voices fade away with impossible delicacy.
In 1918, Holst used the girls' choir closest at hand, that of the St. Paul's Girls' School, where he taught. On Wednesday, the 18 girls of that very same choir will perform the work here in Boston.
So, how did it come to be that one hundred years after The Planets premiered at Queen's Hall in London, the very group that was at the premier is singing the work at the Hatch Shell here in Boston? The stars, as it were, aligned.
“Last summer we were contacted by the father of two St Paul’s School graduates,” says Jo Frances Meyer, Executive Director of Boston Landmarks Orchestra. “[Ron Zeghibe] is a Bostonian who has lived in London for many years. He was looking for opportunities for the girls' choir to perform in the U.S. this summer and he ended up reaching out to Julie Burros (the Mayor’s arts czar) and also to Joe Rotondo at the DCR. They both told Ron that he should probably be in touch with the Landmarks Orchestra.”
“We jumped at this opportunity, and one thing led to another, and the rest is history! We’re thrilled that we could make it a reality.”
Collaborations like the one with the St. Paul’s School are a special treat for audiences, but they are not unusual for the Boston Landmarks Orchestra.
“Our mission is to make our concerts accessible to everyone,” says Meyer, “and we believe that one of the best ways to create that access is through meaningful collaborations with as many community partners as possible. Last summer we collaborated with almost 30 partners, ranging from Back Bay Chorale to Camp Harbor View to ZUMIX.”
ZUMIX is a favorite collaboration for Landmarks. The East Boston non-profit works with about 1,000 kids every year to develop “adolescent self-identity” through music. Its goal is "to equip youth with the tools necessary to reach their full potential, while creating a safe space for youth to explore who they are and who they want to be."
This Wednesday, ZUMIX performs a piece inspired by The Planets, called Pegasus Promenade, “an original work echoing Holst’s fascination with the human psyche.” It was composed by four women: Jennifer Perez, Eleasah Whittaker, and sisters Tayler and Rehanna Fernandez Nuñez. According to the Boston Globe, all four are ZUMIX students or alumnae ages 17 to 21, who composed Pegasus Promenade with guidance from Boston-based composer Gonzalo Grau.
This will be the fourth summer that the two organizations team up, and the third where ZUMIX performs an original work in one of the summer's concerts.
Landmarks Orchestra’s opening night concert is Wednesday, July 18 at 7:00pm at the DCR Hatch Memorial Shell on the Esplanade. The concert is free and open to the public, with a rain date on the Thursday, July 19.
The season then continues with free concerts every Wednesday evening through August 22. For more information, see the full concert listings here.