By Lawrence Budmen

The British composer Gustav Holst's 1917 orchestral suite "The Planets" has long been an orchestral showpiece. If the composer's pioneering instrumental and harmonic innovations now seem like clichés, that is because Hollywood has long since adapted his musical language (via Erich Korngold and John Williams). In a striking performance "The Planets" can still make a powerful musical impact and that is exactly what the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra accomplished at its opening concert on October 15, 2002 at Miami's Gusman Center.

Guest conductor Christopher Wilkins led a brilliantly colorful performance that was full of subtle instrumental details. Unlike many conductors Wilkins did not play the work as a study in sheer volume. The soft pianissimos were as important as the triple fortes in this performance. "Mars, the Bringer of War" was all the more powerful and frightening in this version. "Venus, the Bringer of Peace" was all Debussy inspired impressionism. Concertmaster Igor Gruppman played the exquisitely radiant violin solo. "Mercury, the Winged Messenger" had such lightness and buoyancy that it threatened to dance off the stage. (What a wonderful ballet this movement would make!) "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" had nuanced restraint instead of the usual bombast. "Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age" was filled with musical wonder and gorgeously delicate combinations of flute and harp. "Uranus, the Magician" was a bouncy, quirky devilish scherzo. In the concluding movement "Neptune, the Mystic" Wilkins perfectly gauged the serene, cosmic sound world with its wordless offstage women's chorus fading away into Holst's vision of musical infinity. This ending was truly exquisite and moving. The women of the Florida Philharmonic Chorus sang with beautiful purity of tone under the outstanding direction of Jo-Michael Scheibe and Jeffrey Bantz. 

Every strand of the composer's complex musical texture emerged with total clarity in this performance. Wilkins offered a serious, highly musical interpretation rather than a sonic blockbuster. From the conductor's onstage comments prior to the performance, it was evident that he had given serious thought to the score's inner details and other worldly vision. It would be hard to imagine a better performance of this popular work. The orchestra rewarded Wilkins with brilliant, tonally resplendent playing. The lush string sound was particularly distinguished. In fact, this was some of the best work the orchestra has done since the departure of former music director James Judd.

The performance of Brahms's "Symphony No. 3 in F Major," Opus 90 was less successful. The opening Allegro con brio and the concluding Allegro lacked musical drive and passion. This music was born of the love of Brahms and Clara Schumann and too often the performance was lacking in romantic ardor. The playing of the trumpet section was occasionally wanting in precision. The middle movements were warmly lyrical in the best Brahmsian manner. The Poco allegretto had a wonderful songlike romantic surge. John David Smith's horn solo was beautifully spun out. Here the rich, dark Brahms sound of the lower strings was beautifully articulated. The Brahms Third Symphony is the most difficult of the composer's four symphonies to bring off in performance. Many outstanding conductors have failed with this score. (Toscanini was one of them.) Wilkins's performance was a qualified success, but there were many beautiful orchestral moments.

Christopher Wilkins was music director of the San Antonio Symphony for the past decade. Prior to that, he was an assistant conductor to Christoph von Dohnanyi in Cleveland and Joseph Silverstein in Utah. He proved to be a thinking man's conductor. After a troubled 2001-2002 season, the general level of orchestral playing, the rapport between the ensemble and the conductor, and the soaring performance of "The Planets" gave renewed hope for a better season ahead.

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