Oberlin Orchestra Impresses
Many of the members of the Oberlin Orchestra have recently returned from a critically acclaimed tour in China. Last Friday, the ensemble once again demonstrated the hallmark musicality, strength and sensitivity that have continued to earn them high praise at home and abroad. Although Music Director Bridget-Michaele Reischl programmed difficult works by Jean Sibelius and Samuel Barber, the orchestra stepped up to the challenge.
Sibelius composed Finlandia in 1899, a time of critical importance and change for the people of Finland who were striving to gain independence from the Russian Empire. As part of this struggle, many felt that Finland had to gain and promote a strong national identity, especially in music. As Sibelius distinguished himself as the most talented of Finland’s composers, his piece, Finlandia, became the unofficial national anthem.
Today, the work continues to bear great nationalistic significance for many Finnish citizens. It opened with a dramatic fanfare performed to near perfection by the orchestra’s superb brass section. Reischl elected to take a tempo that was slightly faster than the conventional speed, but the effect was quite pleasing as the orchestra proceeded seamlessly from the introduction into the festive Allegro Moderato section.
Early on, the violins made several hesitant entrances, and the intonation suffered as a result. However, the broad hymn-like tune in the strings in the second half of the piece was strong and unified. Of particular note were several delicate and splendidly balanced woodwind interludes, a recurring swiftly rhythmic figure in the trumpets and a powerful fanfare in the horns. The trumpet section, in particular, produced a wonderfully rich and stable sound toward the end of the piece, which finished with a passionately majestic conclusion that the orchestra rendered with great energy.
Samuel Barber wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning Concerto for Piano and Orchestra over a period of two years to commemorate the opening of the Lincoln Center in New York City. With the exception of his immortal Adagio for Strings, it is probably his most renowned composition.
The piano began with an unaccompanied exposition full of grand, powerful octaves reminiscent of Rachmaninoff. The orchestra then made a striking fortissimo entrance before relaxing slightly into the flow of the piece, in which the high strings laid a nice foundation for a series of notable solos.
Artist diploma candidate flutist Fei Wen and sophomore oboist Malia Smith, in particular, played with great verve and sensitivity. The second movement, “Canzone Moderato,” is more restrained. First-year Juliana Beckel’s harp provided a delicate and consistent base for the members of the orchestra, who skillfully traded solos with the piano before the strings concluded the movement, which ended with a rather sinister tone.
The third movement was set in a relentless, driving irregular 5/8 meter that kept the audience slightly off balance throughout its exciting duration. Some of the brass articulations were not as clear as they were in other parts of the program, but Reischl directed the orchestra to a strong and momentous conclusion.
Even more memorable, however, was 22-year-old senior pianist Megan Glover, a native of St. Louis and a student of Associate Professor of Piano Alvin Chow. Since beginning to study, she has received recognition for her playing.
Listening to her performance, it was easy to see why — Glover played virtuosically with a muscular strength paired with sensitive interpretation. The audience received the soloist and the orchestra’s stirring rendition of the concerto with applause.
The orchestra concluded the evening with Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major, a uniquely structured work. In this piece, Sibelius abandoned traditional symphonic form in which a theme is introduced and broken down before arriving at a concluding recapitulation. Instead, the composer slowly introduced thematic material — melodies based on traditional folk songs.
The fragments did not fully coalesce until the end of the first movement, which was filled with superlative expression, contrasting dynamics and suspended energy from the orchestra’s string sections up — to that point, the best playing of the night.
Several woodwind solos were expressive but would have benefited from more uniform articulation. In this movement and others, (as in the Barber concerto) first-year hornist Jorge Mejia played both courageously and majestically on difficult and exposed passages.
The second movement opened in a unique way: a timpani roll transferring to an extended pizzicato (plucked) passage in the low strings, performed with admirable unity and sensitivity by the cello and bass sections. After a sublimely mysterious bassoon duet and some impressively controlled brass passages, the movement concluded with soaring string lines backed by slow-moving brass.
A scherzo duel between the violins and the viola and an impressive trumpet fanfare were the highlights of the third movement. The symphony concluded its fourth movement with recapitulations of the two primary themes, each rendition growing in strength with increasingly broad orchestration. Playing throughout this movement was universally strong — each member of the orchestra performed with great vigor and enthusiasm.
The thunderous, powerful and sonorous conclusion was a worthy pinnacle to yet
another memorable concert by Reischl and the Oberlin Orchestra.