by Jack Diablo
This may seem a bizarre form of entertainment for yours truly to review. Orchestral music isn’t exactly in the same arena as the newest lo-fi chillwave act or thrashing punk juggernaut. It is one of those things that is often seen as reserved for the elite and the culturally superior. While I humbly admit to fancying myself as a tattooed, rebel member of said demographic, I submit that orchestral music can be just as powerful and have the same if not greater effect on the mind, heart and gut as the most raw, brutal metal music ever performed. Case in point, the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra’s recent performance of Gustav Holt’s The Planets.

I’ve long wanted to check out our city’s orchestra, all the time wondering if it was indeed the first-rate group that the name implies. Director of Public Relations, Paul Witkowski, was kind enough to give me the opportunity to experience the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra for myself, and I must say, I was not disappointed.

Let me first say that one should not be intimidated by this cultural affair. While an element of pomp and circumstance is indeed a part of the ritual, it is nothing to fear. One can show up in a tuxedo or a pair of khakis and not feel out of place. You’ll find very few if any pompous elites staring down their noses at you no matter how out of place you might initially feel. I spied one gentleman in a sports coat and space-themed pajama pants. Not even kidding.

Before the show, the UNF String Quartet hosted several members of the orchestra in the lobby s a fundraiser for the victims of the Japanese earthquake. The prelude allowed concert-goers a sample of the music to come and a soundtrack to their cocktail swilling.

As we were seated, the orchestra was already on stage tuning and rehearsing for the evening’s performance. Quiet eventually settled and the concertmaster emerged as the audience applauded. The orchestra tuned their instruments to his lead before Fabio Mechetti, the orchestra’s conductor took his place on the podium to another round of applause. By this time, I was tingling in anticipation of hearing the first live orchestra music I’d heard in probably a decade.

First on the schedule was Music of the Spheres, apiece written by Josef Strausss, brother to the more famous Johann. This beautiful piece of music is named for the movement of celestial bodies and the musical way they seem to behave. This sense of grandeur is exactly what you feel as the waltz paints a picture of giants dancing trough the cosmos, setting the tone for that was to follow.

The appeal of choral music has always been lost on me, perhaps because most of my experience of it to this point had been with little to no accompaniment. However, when the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus lifted their many voices to the words of Walt Whitman, arranged and set to the music of Ralph William Vaughan, something within my soul did stir. Rather than bring back excruciating memories of choir hymns, the performance made my hair stand on end. Each voice was like an added instrument to the mix and I was blown away by the range and volume of the chorus, how it had the same effect on me as a well-placed tympani roll or violin solo. It was majestic and magical and the emotional bow taken by the chorus’s director Jon O. Calrson and the ensuing standing ovation honoring his final concert before retirement was much-deserved!

After the intermission I was literally buzzing with anticipation for the grand finale of Holst’s The Planets. I share a very nostalgic connection with this particular piece of music. For me it is one of the most easily-recognizable pieces of symphonic music for two reasons. One, within it are extremely stylized interpretations of not only the planets themselves but the mythical characters behind their namesakes. Two, my high school marching band performed an arrangement during my band geek days. Hum half a bar of the memorable Mars or Jupiter movements in a game of Name That Tune and I’ll spend the next few hours singing it to myself until I arouse contempt from those around me forced to listen to my off-key wailing.

As the conductor raised his wand my body tensed up as the horns slowly crescendoed and the percussion section tapped the 5/4 staccato rhythm until the first climax erupted in unison. I literally stifled a “WHOO!” as Mars: Bringer of War raged on in a way that no other type of music seems able to capture. This is seriously one of the most intense and exciting pieces of music I know of. My love affair with it is based solely on the dynamic license Mr. Kidwell, our band director afforded the drum line. We were given free reign to break from convention and flail our arms as animatedly as our excited little bodies could manage. As band nerds, it was as close to sex as most of us had ever experienced and we found ourselves unusually motivated to show up to practice. Even now on the listening end of the experience, I found it just as exhilarating. The dark, ominous low tones and powerful rhythm resonate deep within my soul near to the same place that lights up (or down) as when I listen to an epic metal riff. In fact, Mars is more metal than some of the most brutal metal tracks ever made and it accomplishes it with no electrified amplification whatsoever.

A few more movements went by but honestly I was still recovering from the onslaught of the first. With my eyes free now to roam rather than fixed on the tympanist, I observed as Fabio Mechetti masterfully conducted his orchestra with the most fluid of motions, his wand, not unlike the sorcerer’s coaxing musical magic from his orchestra. Watching him gave me a new found respect for the work of the conductor. Of course, I’ve had experience and know that they do infinitely more than keep time but for some reason his hands seemed to do more to the sound than merely direct it. It was uncanny in a way that my words would do no justice in attempting to describe.

It wasn’t until Jupiter: Bringer of Jolility was rolling along that the tune came beck to me and I realized just what a fun little number it had been all along. Missing the pure power and volume of Mars, it wasn’t as fun to play on snare drum but agin, being on the opposite side of listening experience allowed me to appreciate more than I had in my youth. Being the largest planet, you’d anticipate something grandiose and full of bombast. While there are certainly moments of that and th piece does take many very serious dramatic turns, for the most part the music is light-hearted and jovial almost to point of inspiring dance. Something like the coronation of a new king and the celebration that follows is evoked in this piece. In some ways it seems the perfect music to score a space epic or National Geographic special on the infinite limitlessness of the universe itself.

The final movement of Neptune was perhaps the most surprisingly impressive part of the evening. Although unassuming at first, the subtle complexity builds into an almost psychedelic and surreal experience as if here on the outer reaches of the solar system, the still, quiet beyond calls like the Siren’s song to a place beyond return, a deep, vast, empty nothing where one would be lost forever. The program specified that the movement featured the women’s chorus so I kept looking to chorus box for them to enter. Towards the end my ears perked up and I thought I heard voices but still no one was in sight. At first I was impressed that the some member of the string family was presumably imitating the sound of the human voice and it wasn’t until very near the end that I realized the voices were concealed backstage making for an eerie effect indeed as the orchestra slowly decresendoed into the most calm, still silence I think I’ve ever experienced.

Jacksonville is unfortunately not as significant a hub for cultural activities as some of the other places I’ve visited and lived. That being said, the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra is all the more impressive as a result. I left the Florida Times-Union Center beaming with pride in my adopted city for having been able to maintain and keep such a talented group of musicians and claim them as our own. I can personally say that this will no doubt be my last trip to see them perform and I highly recommend the experience to anyone with the faintest curiosity or appreciation for this kind of music.