The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra presented a space-themed concert in an exciting evening’s programme of many well-known pieces rolled into a couple of hours. The orchestra filled the stage at the Colston Hall with more instruments than any other concert of the Bristol classical season this year. They created a huge symphonic sound with a massive orchestra, complete with an electronic organ, two harps, a gong, kettledrums, timpani and even, unusually, a bass flute.

The concert which was entitled ‘The Planets – An HD Odyssey’, focussed around Holst’s The Planets as its main large work, set to a film with abstract footage from space of each of the different planets that were timed specifically to move alongside Holst’s score. The dynamic contrasts between the different planets gave Saturn elegant solo moments, Jupiter its patriotic hymnal feel and Mars a big brass punch of relentless ostinatos. Where other performances of The Planets have tended to lose the subtlety of the more delicate movements in favour of the bolder sounds, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were very in-tune with savouring the precious moments of the work. Where Uranus dramatically opened with four big brass chords, the two harps performed the delicate questioning final gesture of the movement in complete contrast. 

Clad in a velvet jacket, Robert Ziegler effortlessly and elegantly conducted, with a cool air of confidence, not sweating a drop despite the evening heat in the venue. He directed the orchestra through complex textures and mastered the balance between the different sections. The entire evening was full of brass punch, where all of the pieces were texturally sumptuous and full of percussive accents, even Johann Strauss’ lyrical waltz On the Beautiful Blue Danube. Ziegler implemented rubato techniques throughout the waltz to slow the end of phrases and to add accents to pauses. The Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was the only piece that felt a bit anti-climactic. It was not an easy piece to place in the programme but it did provide a good contrast between Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (orch. Stokowski) and the main title from John Williams’ Star Wars.

There should perhaps have been some film footage on the empty screen looming above the audience for the first half of the concert, or the screen should have been extended for the second half, as it was disconcerting. The majority of the shorter pieces selected for the first hour of the evening, such as John Williams’ Star Wars Main Title and Richard Strauss’ Sunrise from Also sprach Zarathustra have had major screen credits and strong associations with films. In a filmic sense, it would have been nice to have had something projected either from the precise moments of the space-themed films in which they appear, or a highly abstract alternative than for what they are known. If the performances of these pieces had been covered by moving image, it could have enhanced the evening without deflecting from the specifically designed film accompanying The Planets.

It was hard to fault the technical music side of the concert, despite the choice of works being rich and complex. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra truly played to an extremely high standard under Ziegler’s baton. At times in Star Wars, the melody carried over excessively on the glockenspiel and overpowered the strings rather than enhancing them as more of a background accent, but this was a minor detail in the overall high standards of the concert.