Music of the Spheres



Audio engineering and videography by Marc Koecher of MKSoundworks

April 29, 2022 / 12:10 pm

St Andrew’s Church 73 Simcoe St Toronto, ON M5J 1W9

A solo piano concert of music inspired by the sun, moon, planets, and stars.

Selections from The Planets by Holst (trans. Millar) along with pieces by Debussy, Gougeon, and Wagner/Liszt

Performed on the church’s magnificent 97-key Bösendorfer Imperial Grand Piano

Details available here.

Program Notes

This afternoon’s program presents various musical interpretations on the celestial objects – the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars.The title, “Music of the Spheres”, is a reference to the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, who believed that there is a kind of “music” within the movements of the heavenly bodies. Much like how proportions of a vibrating string produce musical pitches, the ratios between solar, lunar, and planetary movements also generate “tones” that, while not audible to the human ear, could be perceived by the soul. The Greeks further believed that this “music” was an expression of the fundamental balance of the universe.
I. The Sun & The Moon
Piano-soleil (from Six thèmes solaires) (c. 7.5 min.) Denis Gougeon (b. 1951)
Clair de lune (from Suite bergamasque) (c. 5 min.) Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Piano-soleil, by Québec composer Denis Gougeon, was commissioned for the International Stepping Stone of the Canadian Music Competitions in 1990. It is the first of ten pieces, one for each of the different instruments and voices participating in the competition. Gougeon conceived of the ten pieces as a suite, with each piece portraying a different object in our solar system – the sun, and nine planets (Pluto was still considered a full-fledged planet at the time!) He gave the whole collection the title of “Six thèmes solaires”, literally “Six Solar Themes”, but more accurately a pun on the French phrase for “solar system”.

The piano is cast in the role of the sun. It’s explosive power, sizzling heat, and radiant energy is conveyed musically through a variety of virtuosic gestures, cascading flurries of notes, and spectral harmonies. The spacious central section of the piece features a haunting melody played tremolando – an unusual (and difficult!) technique on the piano – that evokes an other- worldly sound.

As the foil to Gougeon’s brilliant and imposing sun, the moon is represented by Claude Debussy’s Claire de lune, the central movement of his “Suite bergamasque” completed in 1905. This is the French impressionist composer’s most famous piece and is a deeply moving reflection upon the romance and magical beauty of moonlight.
II. The Planets
Three Movements from “The Planets”
(concert transcription for solo piano by Gregory Millar)
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

1. Mercury, the Winged Messenger (c. 4 min.)
2. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age (c. 9 min.)
3. Uranus, the Magician (c. 7 min.)

An English composer of German descent, Gustav Holst is most remembered today for his orchestral suite The Planets, which was composed between 1914 and 1917. “The Planets” is scored for an extremely large orchestra and is a masterpiece in the art of orchestration. Yet, Holst worked out the piece on two pianos, and the music, in fact, is wonderfully conceived for a keyboard.

The suite consists of seven movements named after each of the planets. (Pluto had not yet been discovered, and our own planet, Earth, is for some reason excluded.) Three of the movements were chosen for this transcription for solo piano:

Mercury, the Winged Messenger, gives the impression of the nimble Greek god relaying a flurry of messages at lighting speed. The piece is a feather-light scherzo, who’s music vacillates between two key areas (B-flat, and E) and two meters (duple and triple). Holst cleverly incorporates a reference to a contemporary war-time mode of communication – a rhythmic ostinato on a high pitch, suggestive of morse code.

Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, opens with a steady alternation of two unsettled chords – the slow, inexorable beating of Time – around which lugubrious melodic fragments are woven. Soon the music turns into a solemn procession that builds to a climax of tremendous psychological tension. Holst releases this tension with great effect, ending the movement in a state of peaceful acceptance. This was the composer’s favorite movement of the suite.

Uranus, the Magician, has often been compared to Paul Dukas’ orchestral showpiece “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. Holst’s sorcerer is introduced by a musical motto of four notes: G – E flat – A – B. The rest of the piece unfolds in three sections, each featuring a different tune, the third of which is a sinister march with a rugged accompaniment based on the four-note motto. This builds to a bombastic climax that ultimately is swept away on a large glissando. As the smoke clears, a remarkable epilogue follows. It is as if the magician has become lost and weakened, and an attempt to gather renewed energy fails. The music dies away on a note of agonizing defeat, and simply stops.

III. The Stars
“O du, mein Holder Abendstern” (c. 6min.) Franz Liszt (1811-1886) (Recitative & Romanza from Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser)

Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser was premiered in Dresden in 1845, and this Romanza from Act 3 has become one of its most popular excerpts. Franz Liszt’s paraphrase of both it and the preceding Recitative appeared in 1849.

This “Song to The Evening Star” (as it is known in English) is sung by the character of Wolfram. At a bleak moment in the drama, Wolfram is left alone in a valley as twilight descends. He begins singing about how the moment feels like a premonition of Death, but his mood brightens at the appearance of the Evening Star, which for him seems “the loveliest of stars” whose gentle light splits the deepening darkness in two and, like a loyal friend, points the way out of the valley. It is a scene ripe with beautiful symbolism of hope and redemption.
About the Artist:
Gregory Millar’s playing has been described as “compelling”, “a tour-de-force”, and “devastatingly beautiful” (Penny Gumbert, The Muskokan). Originally from Lachine, Quebec, Gregory’s career as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral pianist has taken him to several Canadian provinces, the Northeastern United States, and Europe. He appears in the Netflix film In The Shadow of the Moon as a concert pianist (whose recital takes a disastrous turn!) Gregory has appeared as concerto soloist with the Kindred Spirits Orchestra and the Mississauga Symphony. He holds a DMA from the Eastman School of Music.


-Spring 2023-

June 1st, 5th, and 6th: Performances at Music on the Hill in Rhode Island. Solo, chamber music, and music for piano four-hands with the Millar Piano Duo.

April 18th: Private engagement in Toronto, Ontario. Solos and music for piano four-hands with the Millar Piano Duo.
Solo Recital: "Music of the Spheres." Friday Noontime Series, St Andrew's Church, Toronto
-Debussy, Gougeon, Holst/Millar, Liszt/Wagner
The year the world stopped.

Concert pianist, "In the Shadow of the Moon" (Netflix).  Release date September, 2019
- Netflix acting debut: performance of Nocturne composed by Jeff Grace. Filmed in Toronto.

Millar Piano Duo. Facebook Live Stream: “Bringing Back the Barber”
- Rossini: Overture to “The Barber of Seville”; Barber: Souvenirs, op. 28 (excerpts); other works

Millar Piano Duo. Facebook Live Stream: “Foray into Fauré”
- Fauré: Dolly Suite, op. 56; Sicilienne, op. 78 (arr. Millar)

Millar Piano Duo. Facebook Live Stream: “’S Wonderful… ‘S Marvelous… ‘S Millar Piano Duo!”
- Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue

Millar Piano Duo. Squires Musical Salon, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA
- Frank Horvat: Piano Piece No. 5 (World Premiere)
- Milhaud: Scaramouche; Mozart: Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448; Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, op. 56b

Clavier à Couleurs: An Exhibit of Piano Preludes”, Heliconian Hall, Toronto
- Chopin: 24 Preludes, op. 28

Millar Piano Duo. Music on the Hill Festival, Rhode Island
- Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; Barber: Souvenirs, op. 28; Poulenc: Sonata

Solo Recital.  Friday Noontime Series, St Andrew's Church, Toronto
- Beethoven: Sonata, F, op. 10/2; Brahms: Fantasien, op. 116; Chopin: Barcarolle, op. 60

"Phibbs and Phriends" CD release events.  New York and Hempstead, NY
- Performance at Northeast Horn Workshop, Hofstra University
- Release concert and party, Manhattan

Solo Recital.  The Art of the Piano series, Gallery 345, Toronto
- C.P.E. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Prokofiev, Pentland, Chopin

The Piano Lunaire series, Toronto
- "Hunter's Moon" (October) - Prokofiev: Sarcasms, op. 17; Pentland: Studies in Line
- "Cold Moon" (December) - Satie: Pièces froides; Crumb: A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 (excerpts)
- "Buck Moon" (July) - Debussy: Le Terrase des audiences du clair de lune; Eisler: Eight Klavierstüke, op. 8

Guest soloist.  Kindred Spirits Orchestra (Kristian Alexander, conductor), Markham, ON
- Saint-Saëns: Concerto No. 4 in C Minor, op. 44

Millar Piano Duo.  Arlene Kies Piano Recital and Masterclass Series, U. of New Hampshire
- Frank Horvat: Piano Piece No. 5 (World Premiere)
- Milhaud: Scaramouche; Mozart: Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448; Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, op. 56b

"Phibbs and Phriends", third concert.  Dimenna Centre, New York City
- Music for horn ensemble and percussion by Milton Phibbs

Vocal chamber music recital.  Fridays @ 12:30 Series, Western University, London, ON
- Melanie Conly, soprano; Anne Thompson, flute

Guest artist with Venuti String Quartet.  Westwood Concerts Series, Toronto
- Dvorak: Piano Quintet in A Major, op. 87; Prokofiev: Overture on Hebrew Themes

Recital with Alex McLeod, violist.  Belfountain Music Festival, Caledon, ON
- Dvořák: Sonatina, G, op. 100

"Phibbs and Phriends", second concert.  The District Social, New York City
- Music for horn ensemble and percussion by Milton Phibbs

Recording Session for "The Current Agenda", Canterbury Music, Toronto
- Chamber music by Frank Horvat

Recital with Ken Hall, flute.  Donor Event, Canadian Children's Opera Chorus, Toronto
- Poulenc: Sonata; Reineke: "Undine" Sonata; other works

Recording Session for "Me to We", Canterbury Music, Toronto
- Chamber music by Frank Horvat

Recital with Jasper Wood, violinist.  Westwood Concerts Series, Toronto
- All-Stravinsky program: Suite italienne; Duo Concertante and other works

Millar Piano Duo.  Sunday Rendez-Vous Series, Pointe-Claire, QC
- Stravinsky: Petroushka (arr. piano four-hands); Satie: Trois morceaux en forme de poire

"D'Opera Seuss": Staged performance with piano of "Green Eggs and Ham" by Rob Kapilow.
- Melanie Conly, soprano; Henry Wodlinger, boy soprano; Edward Franko; director.  St. George the Martyr Church, Toronto