Holst’s The Planets: Sax Quartet
Stunning New Adaptation

by Fredric Dannen

Several years ago, a friend of mine came to San Miguel after a visit to Tokyo, with a present in hand, a classical CD then unavailable outside of Japan. It had the intriguing title The Planets by Trouvère. My friend explained that an award-winning composer named Jun Nagao had taken Gustav Holst’s ever-popular orchestral suite The Planets, and adapted it for saxophone quartet –soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone sax – and piano. (The Trouvère Quartet, for whom Nagao created his adaptation, is Japan’s leading sax quartet ensemble.) As it happened, my friend had dropped in unannounced, and I was about to head out for a lunch appointment. Over my protestations, he put the CD on the stereo. By the second movement, “Venus,” I was calling to cancel lunch.

After repeated listening, I became convinced that Jun Nagao was something of a marvel. The saxophone quartet has existed as a type of chamber ensemble since the 1850s, and started attracting attention in the 20th century, as audiences became aware of the irresistible sound of the four instruments playing together. Nagao’s scoring was masterly; he seemed to know how to get the most euphonious, orchestral richness out of a saxophone quartet. The addition of a concert grand piano added even more orchestral heft and sonority.

Then, in 2014, Anacrúsax, the No. 1 saxophone quartet ensemble in Mexico, gave a standing-room-only concert at Rancho Los Labradores. I happened to be in the audience, and it gave me an idea. What if I could get a copy of the score Nagao had prepared for the CD, and get it to Anacrúsax? I finally located Nagao via email, and asked whether by some chance his score had ever been published. No, he said, it had not.

So, he sent it to me.

To my knowledge, Anacrúsax, without doubt the finest saxophone quartet in all of Mexico, remains the only ensemble outside of Japan ever to perform Nagao’s stunning adaptation of Holst’s The Planets. On December 13 and 14 (a Wednesday and Thursday), at 7pm, Anacrúsax will perform the work at the Bellas Artes in San Miguel, Hernandez Macias 75, along with concert pianist Edith Ruiz. As a bonus – a considerable one – Octavio Ynigo, a member of Anacrúsax, will also perform, with pianist Enrique Prado, the Paul Creston Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, a small masterwork that deftly combines classical music with jazz.

General admission to the two identical concerts is 250 pesos, or $15 US online. Tickets are on sale now at Solutions (Recreo 11), and online, via steinwayseries.com. Admission at the door is 300 pesos.

The concerts are particularly timely: Holst’s The Planets received its world premiere in 1918, which means that the work’s centennial is nearly upon us.

Nagao adapted the seven movements of Holst – “Mars,” “Venus,” “Mercury,” “Jupiter,” “Saturn,” Uranus,” and “Neptune” – and then added three of his own – “Comets,” “Pluto,” and “The Earth.” Nagao’s sense of humor is evident throughout his Planets, which is replete with musical puns. To mention only two: the “Jupiter” movement quotes the Mozart symphony of the same name; and “Venus” quotes the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser (Venus, goddess of love, is a character in the opera). Appropriately, the name of the performing ensemble is itself a pun: A note or sequence of notes preceding the first downbeat in a piece of music is called an anacrusis.

The concerts are the year’s final installments of the Steinway Series, benefit concerts distinguished for their excellence, and presented quasi-monthly at the Bellas Artes. All Steinway Series concerts help to fund Libros para Todos, an outreach program to promote the habit of reading, with a particular focus on Mexican children in rural areas.

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Fredric Dannen is a jour­nal­ist and author with a spe­cial­ty in crim­i­nal jus­tice. He has been a staff writer for the New York­er and Van­i­ty Fair.

In 1990, Hit Men, his book about the Amer­i­can music indus­try and the influ­ence of orga­nized crime, spent a mon­th on the New York Times best­seller list. The book is #2 on Billboard's list of 100 Greatest Music Books of All Time. One of his Van­i­ty Fair arti­cles prompt­ed the Six­th Cir­cuit Court of Appeals to rebuke the U.S. Jus­tice Dept. for fraud­u­lent­ly with­hold­ing excul­pa­to­ry evi­dence in the case of Cleve­land auto work­er John Dem­jan­juk, who was extra­dit­ed, wrong­ly con­vict­ed, and sen­tenced to hang in Israel as the Nazi war-criminal “Ivan the Ter­ri­ble.” He secured the only inter­view given by Los Ange­les police chief Daryl Gates on the heels of the infa­mous Rod­ney King beat­ing, and the only inter­view ever given by crime boss Loren­zo Nichols, the crack king­pin of New York City.

While con­duct­ing research for a forth­com­ing book, Dan­nen uncov­ered lost evi­dence in the case of Calv­in Wash­ing­ton, a Tex­an wrong­ly con­vict­ed of homi­cide. As the direct result of Dannen’s efforts, Calv­in Wash­ing­ton won a full par­don for inno­cence, the first ever grant­ed by Tex­as gov­er­nor Rick Per­ry under the state’s DNA statute.

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