Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

five stars

A YEAR hence, the newly announced 2019/20 season of Sunday Classics concerts at the Usher Hall concludes with a Brussels Phil concert conducted by Stephane Deneve. His old band, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, brought the current season to a close with a very well-attended exploration of space and screen repertoire, built around the Houston Symphony-commissioned packaging of Gustav Holst’s The Planets as “An HD Odyssey”, using footage from the American orchestra’s neighbours at the NASA Space Center.

Film producer/director Duncan Copp’s imagery is sometimes breath-taking, but non-intrusive as far as the performance of the music is concerned, and prefaced by testimony from scientists talking about the composer’s century-old response to our solar system. Before the cosmology, however, the footage began with shots of a clockwork metronome which might as easily have been the image of the afternoon. Conductor Ben Palmer, accustomed to teaming orchestras with screenings, directs as if there is a constant click-track in his head, and the first half repertoire, which ranged from Strauss (Richard and Johann), Bach and Beethoven to John Adams and John Williams, was fascinating for that, as well as its interwoven themes on the road to the big Star Wars Main Theme finish.

The metronomic focus is essential for Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine, but also shone on the Blue Danube, with the RSNO in US Marine Band rather than ballroom mode. That followed the brief opening Sunrise from Also sprach Zarathustra (as used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, of course), which has surely never unfolded so precisely as it did here, from double bassoon and basses, through brass and timpani to a brief cameo for the mighty Usher Hall organ played by Mark Hindley. Paradoxically, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue for organ was included in its orchestral “Fantasia” arrangement by Stokowski, which in turn made the debt owed to the earlier composer in the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th all the more obvious.

A decade before he began work on The Planets, Holst occupied the trombone chair currently filled by Lance Green in the Scottish orchestra, and, whether or not that means the music is in the band’s DNA, it served up a top class version of the suite, with star solo contributions and the sharpest ensemble playing.