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Program Notes: The Planets (November 18-20, 2022)


November 18-20, 2022

Kevin McBeth, guest director

Astéria (World Premiere) (2022)

Primal Message (2020)

Sukkot Through Orion's Nebula (2011)


Gustav Holst

The Planets (1914)

Mars, the Bringer of War

Venus, the Bringer of Peace

Mercury, the Winged Messenger

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age

Uranus, the Magician Neptune, the Mystic

Members of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus


Program Notes

by Benjamin Pesetsky

The pieces on this program all look upward to the sky, but come with different touchstones and points of view. Guillaume Connesson’s Astéria is based in Greek Mythology, and is named for the daughter of a Titan known as “the starry one.” Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s Primal Message considers how and what we might communicate with alien civilizations. James Lee III’s Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula is based in Seventh-day Adventist theology and depicts the Second Coming. And finally, Gustav Holst’s The Planets—inspired by astrology—may be the lodestar of orchestral space music.

Guillaume Connesson
Guillaume Connesson


Guillaume Connesson

Born 1970, Boulogne-Billancourt, France

The music of Guillaume Connesson is especially important to SLSO Music Director Stéphane Denève, who in recent seasons has led his Saxophone Concerto “A Kind of Trane,” Flammenshrift, and The Shining One with the SLSO. “I adore his music because it continues the great tradition of French music,” Denève said in an interview. “It’s extremely richly orchestrated, very colorful … and it’s very accessible music of today.”

Astéria (Second Nocturne for Orchestra) is Connesson’s most recent orchestral work, and it receives its world premiere with this week’s performances. It was commissioned by the Gelders Orchestra in the Netherlands and dedicated to the memory of the Dutch conductor Eduard van Beinum (1900–1959), whose foundation has supported Connesson’s work.

The Composer Speaks

Connesson provided the following:

Astéria, daughter of the Titan Coeus and his sister Phoebe, is the personification of the starry night and falling stars in Greek mythology. Following my first nocturne for orchestra, Eiréné (the goddess of peace), this second nocturne is entirely conceived as an étude on motion, the encounter between the mobile (the falling stars) and the immobile (the vault of heaven). From the introduction the delicate movements of the clarinets and vibraphone are placed against a background of strings and bass drum. An initial theme is stated by the cellos and horns, always in dialogue with the “falling stars” of the flutes. The second theme…is given to the violins before the livelier central part begins its scherzo-like third theme. The three themes combine in ever-changing orchestral settings. Calm returns in the coda, where we again find the sparkling, static harmonic clouds from the beginning to which cello and violin solos are added. To conclude, the music dissolves in the distance… (Translated by John Tyler Tuttle).

First performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, 4 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings

Approximate duration: 10 minutes

Nokuthula Ngwenyama
Nokuthula Ngwenyama

Primal Message

Nokuthula Ngwenyama

Born 1976, Los Angeles, California

In June 2017, The New York Times Magazine published an article titled “Greetings, E.T. (Please Don’t Murder Us.)” about the merits and risks of sending radio messages out into the galaxy to search for extraterrestrial civilizations. The writer, Steven Johnson, asked:

If you believe that these broadcasts have a plausible chance of making contact with an alien intelligence, the choice to send them must rank as one of the most important decisions we will ever make as a species. Are we going to be galactic introverts, huddled behind the door and merely listening for signs of life outside? Or are we going to be extroverts, conversation-starters? And if it’s the latter, what should we say?

This prompt caught the attention of composer and violist Nokuthula Endo Ngwenyama, whose multifarious education includes not only musical studies, but also a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard. The idea of an interstellar message (in particular the real-life Arecibo message sent from a radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 1974) inspired her to write Primal Message, first as a viola quintet in 2018, before orchestrating it for strings, harp, and percussion in 2020.

The Composer Speaks

In her own note, Ngwenyama wrote:

It’s 1974. What should we put in humanity’s first message in a bottle sent 25,000 light years away? Astronomers Francis Drake (of the Drake equation), Carl Sagan (Contact), and others created the historic Arecibo message, in which 186 seconds of interstellar radio waves sent a friendly map, our then-understood DNA structure, and transmitting technology in binary anthropomorphic organization to globular star cluster M13 in our galaxy’s Hercules constellation.

The ideas conveyed by Steven Johnson’s New York Times Magazine article…encouragement from the Phoenix Chamber Music Society and Chamber Music Northwest, and early days with partner John Clements awakened imaginings about what a “primal message” might sound like. This assumes other possible life forms hear and feel sound like we do. Opening off-world communication through transverse waves explores existential conveyance under a frayed veil of decorum through form, melody, and numbers.

Primal Message is a fantasia that relies upon primal relationships—duo versus trio textures, modulations…rhythmic layering, melodic structure... It invites examination of our collective evolution through a drive to express, tying us in concert with universal celebration.

First performance: November 5, 2020, by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Xian Zhang conducting

First SLSO performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: strings, harp, percussion also written for celesta, which is sometimes wrapped in with percussion

Approximate duration: 9 minutes


James Lee III
James Lee III

Sukkot Through Orion's Nebula

James Lee III

Born 1975, St. Joseph, Michigan

In Judaism, Sukkot is a week-long fall harvest festival during which observers dine, pray, and sometimes sleep in a temporary outdoor shelter called a sukkah. This connects people with nature and the ancient agricultural cycle, while also recalling the nomadic life of the Israelites following the Exodus from Egypt. In some Christian denominations, Jewish holidays from the Old Testament are interpreted as prefiguring events of the New Testament. In this tradition, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot together foretell the yet-unfulfilled Second Coming of Jesus.

James Lee III’s Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula was inspired by this theology, which is embraced by Seventh-day Adventists. Adventists observe the sabbath on Saturday, and believe Jesus’ return is near. Lee was raised in the church, which was founded in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1863, just an hour away from Lee’s birthplace. He went on to study piano and composition at the University of Michigan. Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula was commissioned by the Sphinx Commissioning Consortium. Since its premiere by the New World Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas, it has become Lee’s most performed work.

The Composer Speaks

Lee offered an in-depth description of the piece’s structure and narrative: (Condensed and edited for clarity)

Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula is a festive work for orchestra. Sukkot is a Hebrew word for the “Feast of Tabernacles.” In biblical days, this holiday was celebrated on the 15th dayof the month of Tishrei (late September to late October). It was the most joyous of the fall festivals that God mandated the Hebrews to observe. It was also a thanksgiving celebration for the blessings of the fall harvest. “Orion’s Nebula” refers to a nebula seen inthe Orion constellation, visible to us in the fall and winter. The nebula forms a roughly spherical cloud that peaks in density near the core. The cloud displays a range of velocities and turbulence, particularly around the core region.

This work is loosely constructed in… a ternary form of seven small sections. It is a musical commentary on the eschatological application of the antitypical “day of atonement” (Yom Kippur) and 24 the “feast of tabernacles” (Sukkot). The seven sections are briefly summarized below:

  1. Reminiscences of the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) by forceful percussive sounds of the snare and bass drums open the work. This is further enhanced by the horns, which imitate the calls of the shofar (a horn used for Jewish religious purposes).

  2. The full orchestra continues to a cadence foreshadowing the grand advent of God.

  3. The woodwinds follow with joyful passages of flourishes and dancelike celebrations, which imitate the people’s reception of the Messiah. As this music continues, the motives pass to the percussion section, piano, harp, and eventually the strings.

  4. Previous melodies and motives are developed and transformed among the orchestra. This section is a musical commentary celebrating the Second Coming of God.

  5. The Orion constellation is the one constellation mentioned specifically in the Old Testament…The muted brass, singing violins, percussion instruments, and woodwinds evoke celestial images of the Messiah, redeemed saints, and New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven through the Orion constellation.

  6. The bass and snare drums provide a reprise of the shofar theme. This continues with orchestral exclamations of joy.

  7. There are passages of call-and-response among the ensemble in the final celebration. The work ends with an explosion of sound.

First performance: October 15, 2011, by the New World Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting

First SLSO performance: These concerts

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, celesta, strings

Approximate duration: 10 minutes

Gustav Holst
Gustav Holst

The Planets

Gustav Holst

Born September 21, 1874, Cheltenham, England Died May 25, 1934, London, England

Gustav Holst’s The Planets was inspired by astrology, which he was introduced to in 1913 while vacationing in Spain with composer-and-writer brothers Arnold and Clifford Bax. Holst was entering his 40s but so far had found only limited recognition as a composer. He worked as a teacher—by all accounts, an excellent one—and served as head of music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, London. He had previously written a substantial number of choral and orchestral works, some inspired by English folksong and others by Sanskrit texts and Hindu philosophy. Either uninterested or uncomfortable with the prospect of writing a symphony, which would have been a typical progression, Holst began to conceive of a different kind of largescale orchestral work: a suite in seven movements (“Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra” was his working title).

It took Holst almost four years to complete The Planets—composing in the soundproof music room of St. Paul’s on weekends and school vacations— and then it was another three years before a complete performance was staged in 1920. Earlier previews were limited to just a few movements because conductor Adrian Boult thought “when [listeners] are being given a totally new language like that, 30 minutes of it is as much as they can take in.” The piece quickly became extremely popular, and the shy and humble Holst achieved a level of celebrity he never really sought nor wanted.

The Music

Though The Planets clearly carries extramusical meaning, it was important to Holst to differentiate it from the kind of musical storytelling found, for instance, in the tone poems of Richard Strauss. “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets; there is no programme music,” he wrote. “Neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names. If any guide to the music is required, the subtitle to each piece will be found sufficient.”

At odds with Holst’s wishes, we nonetheless offer a brief guide:

Mars, the Bringer of War, was completed just before the outbreak of World War I, as if Holst could foresee the unprecedented conflict. Its driving, off-kilter march ends in a fractured climax. Venus, the Bringer of Peace, was written as the first news came of combat on the Western Front (Holst himself was unable to serve due to lifelong poor health). It is a lyrical and melancholy movement with horns and winds mingling with hushed strings. Mercury, the Winged Messenger, is rambunctious and fleeting, with silvery touches from the harp and celesta, and woodland dance rhythms. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, was heavily influenced by English folksong, broadening in the second half with a new theme marked Andante maestoso (majestic).

Now we are in the outer solar system, encountering stranger, more distant, planets. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, is a creaky giant, wheezy and weary, but still an eminent presence when roused. (This is the longest movement, and Holst’s favorite.) Uranus, the Magician, has a whole bag of tricks—entertaining, eccentric, and ambiguously threatening. Neptune, the Mystic, is cold and remote. Near the end, Holst introduces a hidden chorus of sopranos and altos, sung at the first performance by his own students. The most human sound in the entire piece is also the most unearthly, with the last bar repeated “until the sound is lost in the distance.”

First performance: September 29, 1918, by the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra, Adrian Boult conducting

First SLSO performance: May 14, 1972, Leonard Slatkin conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: May 8, 2016, David Robertson conducting

Instrumentation: 4 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo, 4th doubling piccolo and alto flute), 3 oboes (3rd doubling bass oboe), English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, tenor tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, celesta, organ, strings, off-stage women’s chorus Approximate duration: 51 minutes


Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.


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