The final concert of the 2017-18 season was nothing short of a triumph – at least the performance I attended Saturday, April 28. The two works on the program were separated by almost a century. And yet, in some ways, they weren’t that far apart stylistically.

Kaija Saariaho’s 2002 “Orion” made up the first half of the concert. Maestro Benjamin Rouse gave this 21st Century work an appropriately 21st Century pre-concert lecture.

Rouse quickly walked the audience through the key points of the work. At each point he had the orchestra play a measure or two, while the highlighted score was projected above them. He also included recorded excerpts of a Skype interview he conducted with Saariaho.

In interviews, Rouse has expressed his love for “Orion.” That came through in his enthusiastic presentation, and in the performance itself. Rouse usually conducts without a score. That can be a little challenging with a well-known work. But for something like “Orion,” it’s fantastic.

Benjamin Rouse had thoroughly absorbed the music and led the orchestra in a thrilling performance. Saariaho writes sound clouds that seem constantly in flux. Rouse’s gestures seemed to summon those sounds out of the air, then shape them with his hands. The orchestra responded to Rouse in kind.

This was music-making at its finest. When the work ended, the audiences responded with a standing ovation.

The second half of the concert was “The Planets” by Gustav Holst. Rouse, perhaps riding the energy of the first half, took the opening movement “Mars, the Bringer of War” at a brisk tempo.  Kudos to the strings for the machine-like precision of their col legno figures.

The “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” movement seemed especially joyous. Both “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” and “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” benefitted from the orchestra’s smooth, seamless blend. For me, one of the most interesting movements was “Uranus, the Magician.” This highly animated performance seemed almost ready to burst at times.

The final movement, “Neptune, the Mystic” featured the Women of the UVA Chamber Singers. For the Old Cabell Hall performance, they were arrayed across the back, on the top tier. The movement sounded mysterious and luminous.

The performance merited another standing ovation, and Rouse responded with a suitable encore — the theme from “Star Wars.” There’s a strong connection between “The Planets” and “Star Wars.” Hearing them in succession made the similarities plain. And it was the perfect way to end a concert of heavenly music (or at least music inspired by the heavens).

Charlottesville Symphony at the Unversity of Virginia
Benjamin Rous, Music Director
The Women of the UVA Chamber Singers
April 28-29, 2018

Kaija Saariaho: Orion
Gustav Holst: The Planets, Op. 32