If Holst's Opus 32 wasn't called "The Planets," would you necessarily think of stars and solar apparitions while listening to it?
That's an interesting question, and one that came to mind frequently during Friday evening's Minnesota Orchestra concert.
As so often when the orchestra's music director Osmo Vänskä is conducting, attention focused sharply on the mechanics of the music itself rather than any nonmusical messages it might be carrying.
That direct, hands-on approach paid ripe dividends in Holst's tinglingly orchestrated masterpiece. Vänskä's approach to "Mars," the opening movement of "The Planets," was urgent and bristling, where others are brooding and monumental.
Sharp-edged instrumental detail cut through the rumbling textures like shards from an inhospitable rock face. World War I was ending when "The Planets" was first performed 100 years ago, and in Vänskä's bluntly immediate interpretation you felt its lingering menace.
"Venus" brought the aftermath of peace, and a series of doleful, seductively floated solos from principal horn Michael Gast.
Principal cello Anthony Ross conveyed a heartfelt counterpoint in his solo responses, and Vänskä's acute ear for orchestral balances ensured the tinkling commentary of two harps and a celesta became a meaningful part of the conversation.
Vänskä is good at avoiding pomposity, and that made the big tune in "Jupiter" — used in the hymn "I vow to thee, my country" — refreshingly bracing in its impact.
The thrills and spills of "Uranus" had Vänska bounding like a gymnast on the podium. "Saturn" by contrast was absorbingly introspective, with telling clarity in passages involving the organ, bells and low brass instruments.
The end was marginally disappointing, the offstage chorus of women's voices in "Neptune" — supplied by the Minnesota Chorale — seeming a bit too distant and lacking in ethereality.
The sound world of "The Planets" has been pilfered for a gazillion movie scores of the intergalactic variety. Vänskä and his players shaved off the glitzy Hollywood accretions and played the work for what it is — a remarkably imaginative and hugely entertaining piece of music.
There was entertainment value too in "Gnarly Buttons," the quirkily hyperactive clarinet concerto by American composer John Adams, which came before the intermission.
The English clarinetist Michael Collins virtually owns the piece — he asked Adams to write it, gave it its premiere two decades ago in London and has made an excellent recording.
In his Minnesota Orchestra debut, Collins gave a dazzlingly virtuosic account of the "Hoedown" movement, where his clarinet was like a tipsy chipmunk pirouetting.
The finest music in "Gnarly Buttons" — a cryptic reference to the button-pressing society we live in — came in the finale, where Collins applied a creamy bel canto line to the poignantly unraveling melody.
"Ramal," a single-movement work by the Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom, opened the concert, providing a much spikier musical experience.
Designed to "reflect the unsettled state of the world," "Ramal" made a jagged, unsettling impression in the Minnesota Orchestra's rhythmically pointed, incisive performance.
It was a sober curtain-raiser to a concert that eventually provided liberal amounts of musical relief and escapism from our own troubled planet.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.