Orchestra ends on a high note
Sunday, May 9’s concert by the Oberlin Orchestra ended this year’s orchestra season on a high note. The performance was a terrific representation of the orchestra’s growth this year. The orchestra, along with the Oberlin Musical Union, College Choir and senior pianist Taisiya Pushkar, delivered an impressive and highly spirited program of works from the early 20-century: Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 4.
Perhaps part of the inspiration for the orchestra’s focused and inspired performance was the fact that most of its members believed that Smith was leaving Oberlin. Orchestra manager and sophomore Sam Quintal gave a speech mid-concert honoring Smith, and gave him a baton as an expression of the orchestra’s appreciation for his work with the program. Smith, however, recently sent a clarifying e-mail to all orchestra members that he will not, in fact, be leaving next year. Regardless of the reason, the orchestra delivered what was probably its most dynamic performance of the year.
The difference between the orchestra’s performance of the Prokofiev concerto in this concert and that of the same composer’s third piano concerto earlier in the semester was night and day. While before, the group was plagued with ensemble problems, this time it accompanied the soloist with unfailing precision and good taste.
Pushkar delivered the virtuosic solo part with an impeccable sense of timing. Although at first her playing seemed somewhat contained, by the end she was so enveloped in the music that she actually stood up on the final chord as part of her closing gesture. She stood out as a performer with no sense of pretense, graceful but matter-of-fact. The orchestra’s sound mirrored the work’s fast-paced mood changes effortlessly, ranging from sweet and soaring to dry and mechanical.
The Stravinsky was the weakest piece on the program. It is an extremely difficult work to sing and perhaps was not the most comfortable repertoire choice for Oberlin’s all-inclusive Musical Union. Intonation was a consistent problem; both the choir and the winds seemed to have difficulty adjusting to Stravinsky’s novel use of tonality. However, they captured the character of the piece convincingly and the overall effect was otherworldly but uplifting. The choir was at its best in the louder sections, particularly the powerful climax of Part II.
The Ives ended the program in a whirlwind of joyous noise and thoughtful meditation. The fourth symphony, Ives’ most celebrated work, is almost more a work of philosophy than of music; it stretches its listener’s conceptions of both music and life. The symphony is a massive production, involving three different conductors and several offstage ensembles. The orchestra and choir met the formidable challenge of performing this idiosyncratic masterpiece with humor, grace, energy and undeniable chutzpah.
The Ives’ movements represent a huge range of styles. The first, based on a movement of Ives’ violin sonata, has a feeling of searching. It asks, as a friend of Ives is quoted in the program, the “questions of What? and Why?” The other movements represent different ways of answering these questions. The second movement is titled, appropriately, “Comedy”; it is a boisterous collection of quotations from Ives’ childhood musical experiences, from hymns to marching band tunes to parlor music. The third movement, “Fugue,” represents a more traditional, religious response. The fugue itself is based on a hymn, and its very structure is a reference to order and ritual. The final movement brings together material from the previous three movements in a truly spiritual conclusion to this work, which tackles life head-on. While the questions posed in the first movement are not answered, the work introduces music as a spiritual, philosophical act and delves deeply into issues not usually covered in the realm of art.
Ives’ simultaneous use of different melodies in different meters, as well as the extent to which he used quotations from diverse genres, was quite revolutionary in his time. The orchestra executed these difficult effects with enthusiasm and, at least as far as the audience could discern, accuracy. Ives’ music is complicated but not inaccessible. The symphony concluded with unmistakable smiles both onstage and off.
This symphony would have been a marvelously appropriate work to end Smith’s last concert at Oberlin. Given that he is not leaving, it was simply another impressive accomplishment; Oberlin is fortunate to have him for another year. His commitment to music’s spiritual and philosophical performance has contributed greatly to the growth of Oberlin’s ensemble program in the past two years, and his presence will hopefully continue to inspire Conservatory students for many years.