Yesterday I attended a Marine Band performance in Alexandria VA for what was probably a once-in-a-(mine anyway)lifetime event. They played a transcription of The Planets--the whole thing, making up the entire second half of the program.
Beginning pleasantly enough with Bach's "Wir glauben all' an einen Gott," we then proceeded into the celestial segment of our journey, with Husa's Apotheosis of this Earth.
Following Music for Prague 1968 by two years, it is as dissonant as Prague and presents a frighteningly depressed depiction of the destruction of the planet. Quoting from Husa:
...In the first movement, Apotheosis, the earth first appears as a point of light in the universe. Our memory and imagination approach it perhaps the same way as it appeared to the astronauts returning from the moon....
The second movement, Tragedy of Destruction, deals with the actual brutalities of man against nature, which lead to the destruction of our planet, perhaps by radioactive explosion. The earth dies as a savagely, mortally wounded creature.
The last movement is a Postscript, full of the realization that so little is left to be said.... one of so many questions comes to our minds: "Why have we let it happen?"
In 1970, perhaps the threat of nuclear annihilation was more pressing than after the end of the Cold War. Nonetheless it was so powerfully depressing that I preferred to perceive it as, similar to Marley's ghost, a prophet saying "I have shown you a possible future. It does not have to be this way."
Fortunately I did not have to go home with that echoing in my head, for Holst was yet to come.
Although I had never heard of it before, this transcription is apparently 7 or 8 years old, done by Merlin Patterson, the brother of Don Patterson, who along with Stephen Bulla, does music production for the Marine Band.
Much of the time, I didn't particularly notice the absence of strings. Besides the usual transfer of black notes into clarinets and flutes, some solo violin parts were covered by soprano sax and some string color went to marimba.
I did hear differences in sectional balance, such that I heard some lines and rhythms I had never noticed before, done here by trumpets and trombones, whatever they were originally.
Besides its difficulty, I will probably never hear this again because of the resources it requires. There were two harps, two sets of timpani, two string basses, bass and contrabass clarinet, contrabass bassoon, three vibraphones and evidently lots of other stuff in the percussion section. In a post-concert meet-the-conductor chat in the lobby, I commented that concert preparation probably included choreographing the percussionists' moves from one place to another. Captain Fettig agreed and noted that this concert had required the biggest transportation effort of any performance in memory--five trucks filled with equipment. Indeed, the long 20 minute intermission was needed to allow time for the percussion to be set up.
Unfortunately, the joy of hearing such an abundance of musical sound is increasingly rare in both band and orchestra. Professional symphonies will consider the expense of hiring the additional musicians and decide that it's not worth it. Even the biggest community bands are unlikely to be able to find such extras. Probably large music schools are the only place that might find that many diverse musical resources to be called up without financial pain, and even more than the DC military bands have a limited geographical accessibility to an audience.