The Planets, BSO at Salisbury Cathedral. Salisbury Festival

IN the 2019 Salisbury Festival, with a celebratory theme of the moon walk 50th anniversary, a concert in the city’s magnificent cathedral, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra playing Holst’s Planets Suite, had to be a high point.

Added into the mix was Luke Jerram’s seven-metre rotating globe Gaia, featuring NASA imagery of the earth’s surface and suspended high above the cathedral floor at the spire crossing.

I know from years of concert going at Salisbury Cathedral, that the positioning of the orchestra is a hotly-debated question. A dais at the western end avoids the acoustic bounce of the spire crossing, and in this case that acoustic would have been further compromised by the presence of Gaia. So the decision was taken to position the orchestra, under the baton of the exciting young conductor Rory Macdon­ald, below the west window, with all the attendant visual problems for the audience.

Judging by the response of that audience, as the final ethereal strains of Neptune (The Mystic) died away, it was a huge success, with a roaring standing ovation from some. The programme began with Charles Ives’ The Unans­wered Question, with the questioning solo trumpet effectively calling from behind the audience.  It continued with Edward Elgar’s often quiet Serenade for Strings, the first half ending with Vaughan Williams’ beloved Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, replete with the lush cinematic strings that Tallis (1505-1585) would not have recognised.

The second half of the concert was given over to Gustav Holst’s most popular work, The Planets. The English composer wrote music for all the main planets known at the time, opening with the thunderous Mars, the bringer of war, and closing with Neptune, the mystic, sung (again from behind the audience) by the voices of the women of Bournemouth Symphony Chorus.
In between, during the Jupiter, the bringer of jollity, comes the familiar hymn I Vow to Thee My Country, not so much jollity but tear-jerking patriotism.

The lamentably inadequate programme notes, aimed not at a regular symphony concert audience but at festival goers trying new experiences, concentrated on Holst’s own retrospective feelings about The Planets. There was no mention of the themes of the movements or their dates of composition during the Great War (Mars, the Bringer of War (1914);
Venus, the Bringer of Peace (1914); Mercury, the Winged Mes­s­enger (1916);  Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity (1914); Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age (1915); Uranus, the Magician (1915) and  Neptune, the Mystic (1915).

The audience could not see Gaia, which would have been a meditative focal point.  Those outside the main aisle between the font and the spire crossing could not see the orchestra. And, in an unintended coincidence, those sitting in the north nave aisle heard the inescap­able sound of the motor turning the Gaia globe, sometimes almost overwhelming the quieter passages of the music.

There have to be compromises in using historic buildings, and in many cases the beauty and majesty of the venues outweighs the inevitable disadvantages. I hope that subsequent visits by the BSO, whatever the conformation of the space, will be accompanied by notes that not only inform and entertain the audience but also give due credit to the musicians and to the composers.


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