BBC Proms 2017/14: Holst – The Planets

Holst’s Planet Suite is a difficult thing to listen to. It’s such a familiar work, and it means so much to so many different people, that listening to it feels like a noisy affair.

It’s as though you’re in the middle of hundreds of people. Like you’ve attended a party everyone wanted to go to.

Here’s a work that for a lot of people is their connection with classical music. Expectations (on my part) are therefore set very high, in the knowledge that everyone else around me may not be quite so picky or mean-spirited. To go with the flow would mean leaving critical listening at the door ‘because its Holst’s Planet Suite’.

Is that fair? Is being critical of something so many people enjoy allowing your own ego to run riot? Does it really matter if a performance of something most people love doesn’t quite meet your own expectations? Honestly, I do think about these things when I’m listening. I don’t want to be mean. At the same time, I’m not prepared to gush (unless it’s well-deserved).

So I’ll spit it out. Tonight’s performance was a bit disappointing.

I’d hoped for more. I’d hoped to be transported. The Planets Suite is a longer-form version of Harry Potter without the visuals. Holst’s mastery is his ability to use music to trigger our imagination. I’m a much bigger fan of imagination. As a result, the responsibility on the conductor and orchestra is to create something magical.

My thinking tonight is that Holst’s score and our expectations mean there’s very little room for artistic licence. As listeners, we know what we want, even if we can’t specifically articulate it.

We don’t want to be mean, we just want it to be a bit like that one we heard a few years ago. You know, that one. *points*

What that illustrates is how popular works burn themselves into our consciousness. We can’t explain what makes the kind of performance that we want to hear, but we are able to explain how/if it didn’t meet our expectations.

And when I say that, that makes me reach out to the conductor, because that’s his look-out. When you realise you’re thinking ‘oh, I didn’t really enjoy that as much as I’d like to have done’, you realise at the same time that you’re passing comment on someone for whom it was work, and something they took seriously.

After all, if you were told that you had to stride on to stage and conduct an orchestra, have the performance broadcast live on the radio, and then (potentially) have to read what some armchair critic had to say about it, would you step up to the podium? I know I wouldn’t.

I wanted to enjoy it more. I didn’t. And in the spirit of authenticity I think it’s important to say how bad I feel about saying that.


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