WE TRAVEL THE SPACEWAYS

“We’re focusing on ‘new’ this season,”says Amy Rankin, director of Marketing & Community Relations for our Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. That speaks of new in format as well as content, the latter being a look at contemporary music such as the inclusion of American composer John Adams’ A Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Adams’ sonorous take on motion and descendant of the machine age music of Honegger’s Pacific 231 from the 1920s.

The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra has long been making accessibility to the community a top goal. This season, it goes it one further, kicking off with three free-to-the public concerts. For the first three days of October, the Symphony will host concerts, respectively, at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre, Unity Plaza (a first visit) in Riverside, and at its home base Downtown at the Jacoby Symphony Hall in the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts.

Another new program is the “Symphony in 60” concert series, not an anniversary reference, mind you, but a series of three 60-minute mini-concerts held on Thursdays at 6 p.m. — just after the workday ends for most folks. The design is for the listeners to spend some immediate after-work time enjoying a concert and then a meet-and-greet with Music Director/Conductor Courtney Lewis and the musicians, if you so choose, or have a drink and hors d’oeuvres, if you so choose. These concerts are featured Nov. 12, March 31 and April 21 at Jacoby Hall.

A live orchestra playing in the pit while a film flickers across the screen is making a comeback by way of the “Symphony Movies” series. All-time favorites get the full symphonic treatment on Dec. 15 (Pixar in Concert), March 12 (Back to the Future) and April 9 (E.T.).

The Symphony season formally opens Oct. 9 with three performances of Gustav Holst’s epic seven-movement suite The Planets. First premiered in 1918 just as WWI was drawing to close, The Planets has endured as a hallmark of orchestral color and inventiveness. In many ways, it was a product of its time, as well as a glimpse into the future. Composed in an era when the carnage of war brought a rise in otherworldly spiritualism, combined with the twilight of the imperial remnants of La Belle Époque, The Planets is a portrait of our heavenly neighbors based on their astrological meanings and symbols. Thus our Earth is excluded (in a strange way, the later work of Alan Hovhaness took up that gig) and Pluto is nowhere to be seen because it was unknown at the time.

Among the highlights of The Planets is its first movement: The Mars, the Bringer of War debate rages to this day regarding film composers, from Max Steiner to John Williams, who’ve nicked a riff or two when some celluloid heroics are required. And prog rock artists too numerous to mention (oh, hell … Jimmy Page, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Rick Wakeman, King Crimson, even Black Sabbath) have lifted pieces of Mars as their own. My ears are more partial to the nimble interweaving of Mercury, The Winged Messenger. However, of the entire piece, it is the final movement Neptune, The Mystic, with its lush harmonic textures and wordless female chorus, that marked both the chromaticism and gradual collapse of the western tonal tradition, while giving every new age or ambient music magus a wellspring of inspiration. For a buttoned-down teacher of music in a London girls’ academy, Holst quietly and with a most sensuous voice not only brought music into the 20th century; in one stroke, Holst catapulted symphonic music over several decades into our own time. Echoes of The Planets continue to reverberate through the universe of music.

Symphony Music Director Courtney Lewis is entering his second season and, should any in the community feel that the symphony is too formal or highbrow, Lewis offers a special word in reaching out: “The impression that the symphony is not for you, is something that people only have who haven’t come to a concert,” says Lewis. “I guarantee everybody, if they come to a concert at Jacoby Hall, they will be drawn in by what we do. It’s a wonderful way to spend an evening.”

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