Orchestra delivers mixed performance
Any audience member listening to the first half of last Friday’s concert by the Oberlin Orchestra was probably paying more attention to ensemble problems than the greater part of the orchestra itself. The striking lack of continuity among sections, not to mention pervasive problems with intonation and entrances, were difficult not to notice.
Before intermission, this concert was so plagued by inattention to detail that it was made worthwhile only by a spectacular performance by senior piano soloist Scott Meek. Given the caliber of the players and the amount of rehearsal time, apathy is really the only possible explanation for the orchestra’s sloppy and poorly coordinated renditions of both Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture” and the orchestral accompaniment to Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
Meek delivered a technically sparkling, sensitive and highly nuanced rendition of the Prokofiev. The accompaniment was also sparkling, sensitive and at times even highly nuanced; however, it was often played with complete lack of regard for the soloist. The orchestra was almost never precisely with Meek, and overpowered him for much of the performance. The strings were generally more impressive in this work than the winds and brass, with the exception of some beautiful solo work in the clarinet and horn. They captured both the exacting clarity and tasteful sentimentality of Prokofiev with ease, while the winds and brass played with more weight than allowed by the style and the light touch of the soloist.
The Brahms, which opened the program, was enthusiastic but careless. Many mistakes stuck out in the wind and brass parts, and the strings lacked tightness of ensemble in quite a few sections. The performance had a very unsettled, uncomfortable feel to it that took away from the exuberance of the work itself. Brahms’ masterfully crafted overture was poorly served by this rendition; it is unfortunate that many prospective students in the audience heard this as their first impression of Oberlin.
Fortunately, the orchestra, in particular the winds and brass, made a stunning comeback in the second half of the program, playing Respighi’s The Pines of Rome and The Fountains of Rome with impressive virtuosity and verve. Although the Disney-esque cheesiness of both works sparked many complaints from orchestra members preparing for the concert, in performance there was no doubt that they were enjoying themselves. Orchestra and audience alike seemed to be swept up in Respighi’s epic and colorful orchestration.
The wind and brass sections were a different entity in the second half of the program – there was rarely a misplaced note, and there were too many exquisitely played solos to mention. The strings delivered a warm, rich sound that was consistently engaging and full of life. These are huge works, demanding a huge range of expression and technical facility, and the orchestra met the challenge of pulling them off with remarkable aplomb. The exuberant and almost overpoweringly loud finale of The Pines of Rome was met with rousing cheers and a standing ovation from the audience – well deserved recognition, although perhaps exaggerated by the crowd-pleasing nature of the work. In a climax that could have been written by John Williams, the “surround sound” of trumpet and trombone players situated on the balconies brought a thrilling end to a concert that showcased both the best and the worst of Conservatory ensembles.