Sunday, March 23, 2014

Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra soars amid "The Planets"

Review by Janet I. Martineau

It's not every day a laptop computer is held aloft by a percussion section musician taking a bow at a symphony concert.

But, then, it's not every day a symphony orchestra goes techno.

Such was the case at the delightful Saturday night Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra concert, subtitled "The Final Frontier."

As the  title might suggest all the selections on the evening's program dealt with exploration and/or outerspace.

The techno piece, titled "Mothership" and by composer/DJ Mason Bates, imagines the orchestra as a mothership that is docked by several visiting soloists.

An apt description, that, because it was commissioned for one of the neatest ventures in music history -- theYouTube Symphony Orchestra. Musicians from all over the world auditioned via YouTube, a panel picked finalists, YouTube fans voted from those finalists, and then the winners all assembled to perform "Mothership," and other pieces, in Sydney, Australia. Technology meets classical music.

Something like 101 musicians from 30 countries. And, of course, it was broadcast live over YouTube. It was the most-watched live music concert on the Internet and the most frequently viewed concert in the history of the video-sharing website.

So that Saginaw was privileged to hear this composition literally live was a treat in and of itself. But that it was so utterly charming and fun, with its electronic beeps, bleeps, bloops, blurps and burps, was even more delightful. And it did indeed sound otherworldly.

But it was not the superstar of the evening.

As a long time concertgoer I think I have heard Holst's "The Planets"  performed at least four times. But never ever like I heard it Saturday night.

I have no idea how maesto Brett Mitchell did it, but he made our orchestra sound like twice as many players were sitting up there on the stage, delivered every nuance you could possibly find in the piece, and generally raised  hair on the back the neck.  The colors in this performance were as brilliant as the sun.

The seven-movement please visits the seven companion planets in our solar system,  from a thundering and bombastic Mars to a quiet and gentle Neptune with its contingent of eerie female wordless  voices floating in from offstage.

In the subtitles of each piece Holst visits war, peace, a winged messenger, jollity, old age, magic, and the mystic. Indeed all that is there and more. Lots of little solo interludes from various musicians. All out attack when they combine. Always has been a  marvelous piece of music, and on Saturday night even more so. It is still reverberating in my mind.

The evening also included Jabert's visit to "The infinate Spaces" and a couple of John Williams pieces, including… obviously…the theme from "Star Wars" as an encore.


  1. What a spectacular night for the SBSO!
    The musicians seem to get better and better as the audience grows larger and younger.

    1. I think we can thank the youth of Brett for that and his efforts introducing living composers to this orchestra and area. Though I was somewhat familiar with the Bates piece through YouTube, there's no comparison to hearing it live from this orchestra. And the Jalbert was a surprising introduction for me.
      Still waiting for a Glass piece to be played by this orchestra. My personal preference would be something along the lines of the Bowie/Eno influenced Low and Heroes Symphonies, just for familiarity's sake. Or, maybe some sacred music by Arvo Part; though it would please me to no end to hear Spiegel im Spiegel again.
      Or, how about inviting Bill Ryan's Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble as guest artist. Though the line-up changes with each school term, they never cease to amaze me.