Nov. 4 2009 12:00 AM

Symphony, choirs blast off to ’Planets’ and beyond

From the bloody hammer of Mars to the cool curves of Venus, Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” has rocked Earth’s music halls for almost a century. It’s been said that the washerwomen danced in the halls at its 1918 premiere in Queen’s Hall, London, and since then it has inspired riffs from artists as far afield as David Bowie, Frank Zappa and Iron Maiden.

“This piece is inspired — almost its own style of music,” said Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt.

But the only way to do “The Planets” is big. If you’re t r a c k i n g the Lansing Symphony season on your tabletop play set — and who isn’t? — all of your friends are going to have to bring their action figures over this week.

Three choirs, doubled woodwinds, extra percussion and keyboards and a star soprano soloist are among the troops needed for Saturday’s double bill of “The Planets” and a lesser-known 20th-century masterwork, Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria.”

There will even be two tympani instead of one. “Holst made a decision to write a piece for huge orchestra, and he takes every advantage that comes with that,” Mufitt said.

The most raucous planet, “Jupiter,” gives the impression of a big man — about 1,000 times the size of Earth — boogieing down on the cosmic village square. The doubled-up tympani have to stomp out the tricky melody like dancing mountains.

Extra woodwinds make more subtle effects possible. In “Venus,” four-part wind harmonies drift in contrary motion, like a transit of heavenly bodies.

Muffitt said the orchestra has hired all of the required reinforcements, including exotic instruments, like the bass oboe. “Everything that needs to be there will be there,” he grinned.

For Poulenc’s “Gloria,” about 200 voices from the MSU Choral Union, Chorale and State Singers will back one of opera’s outstanding young stars, New York-based soprano Nancy Allen Lundy.

Lundy is a leading lyric soprano of opera’s recent renaissance. She emphasizes acting as much as singing, has premiered several operas and specializes in modern roles, like Pat Nixon in John Adams’ “Nixon In China.”

She said Poulenc is right up her alley. “I’m not a big musicologist, but Poulenc was around late enough to have the jazz influence in his music,” she said. “There are some beautiful colors in there.”

“It’s modern music, with a little dissonance and grit, but very approachable,” said choral director David Rayl.

Rayl said his choirs will sing all the tricky stuff underneath, while Lundy gets all the best melodies.

“I do,” Lundy agreed cheerfully. “That’s why I picked it.”

When Muffitt asked Lundy to sing with the symphony, she thought of “Gloria” right away. “It’s gorgeous and ecstatic,” she said. “It has the religious fervor without religion.”

Rayl agreed that a secular bustle bubbles through “Gloria’s” sacred texts.

“Some of it sounds like you’re sitting at a Parisian café,” Rayl said. “Cars are driving by, and you’re smoking cigarettes and drinking Perrier — or something stronger.”

Muffitt said the music requires a singer who can float on tricky harmonies with a “pure, focused and beautiful” voice.

“It has to be perfect,” Lundy agreed. “There’s no room for error. It has to be in tune, the colors have to be bright.”

Saturday night, when “Gloria” is over, the women from the State Singers and Chorale, about 50 strong, will stick around to add their ethereal “oooo” for “Neptune,” the eerie finale of “The Planets.”

That’s why Muffitt programmed a choral work on the same bill. “You’ve got them there already,” Muffitt said.

True to Holst’s plan, the singers will not be visible. “They’ll sing from backstage, from the Sun, or somewhere,” Rayl said. “We’ll have to work that out.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra

Allen Lundy, soprano MSU Choral Union, Chorale and State Singers 8 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 7 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $12-$45 (517) 487-5001