Conservatory Ensembles’ Spring Season Begins March 6 on Oberlin Stage Left

Students, faculty, and composers embrace new repertoire opportunities brought about by pandemic.

February 26, 2021

Erich Burnett

Oberlin Stage Left

Courtney Bryan’s Sanctum musters a simmering, passionate response to the scourge of racially charged violence at the hands of police. Its orchestration blends with a wave of recorded sound: labored breathing, plaintive cries, and audio capturing the defiant resolve of marching protestors.

A 2004 graduate of Oberlin, Bryan wrote Sanctum in the months after the killing of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, an event that sparked widespread outrage.

“It’s a response to events that happened in 2014,” says Professor of Conducting Timothy Weiss. “But she could have written this piece 15 more times since then, based on more recent events.”

Premiered by the American Composers Orchestra at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2015, Sanctum now serves as a fitting kickoff of the conservatory’s spring semester slate of large ensemble performances, which will be broadcast Saturdays on Oberlin Stage Left—the conservatory's virtual programming platform—into the month of May.

Bryan’s work airs Saturday, March 6, beginning at 7 p.m. It is performed by the Oberlin Sinfonietta, under the direction of Weiss.

The program also features three works conducted by Raphael Jiménez: The Oberlin Orchestra presents Trumpeters’ Lullaby by Kenneth Amis, which captures the emotion of a helpless child’s crying and the tireless effort of parents to bring calm by any means possible, and Untitled by Jonathan Bingham, which honors 20th-century artists who ignited curiosity and intrigue through their nameless creations; the Oberlin Chamber Orchestra performs Antonín Dvořák's Serenade for Winds, the lone piece on the program that is a staple of repertoire.

musicians playing on a stage.
Timothy Weiss leads members of the Oberlin Sinfonietta in a February rehearsal of music by alumna composer Courtney Bryan ’04.

The realities of music-making in a pandemic—especially limits on the number of musicians who can safely perform in the same space—have led to a continual wave of adaptation and innovation. Those limitations have also led to opportunities for Oberlin to redouble its longstanding commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“The pandemic has forced us to completely reorganize our program, and there are some parts of it that are actually really great and that we will hold onto,” says Weiss. “Our players are getting more diverse experiences. I think we are doing a better job of spreading opportunities across all the students. And another aspect—not just related to the pandemic, but also to social justice—is that because you can’t have a full orchestra, the repertory has been forced to change.

“As a result of that, Oberlin has asked itself what kind of art do we want to amplify?"

“We continue to have a very diverse repertoire," says Jiménez. “It just represents what we are committed to do in terms of programming. We continue to look for a balance between conservatory tradition and embracing new music, embracing diversity, and promoting new voices.”

"After the pandemic is over," Weiss adds, "that won’t go away.”

Three of the four works featured on March 6 were written by living Black composers, a manifestation of the conservatory’s deliberate emphasis on exalting the work of artists from historically underrepresented backgrounds—including women, like Bryan.

Also arising from the era of COVID is a newfound means of making composers a part of the process, including the insightful interviews that appear in advance of most performances. Weiss and Jiménez both routinely use Zoom to welcome composers to rehearsals of their music. It’s an innovation that has benefited everyone involved, from the opportunities for feedback and collaborative revision, to the tearful release of emotion that came in the fall, when a renowned composer heard Oberlin students perform his music in Warner Concert Hall—the first time he had heard anyone play his music since the onset of the pandemic.

The spring semester of large ensemble performances on Oberlin Stage Left promises a wealth of special moments: faculty collaborations, world premieres, student compositions, and more. Though exact performance dates have yet to be confirmed, highlights will include:

· Composition professor Jesse Jones performing the U.S. premiere of the mandolin concerto Eight Metal Strings by Dutch composer Martijn Padding with the Oberlin Sinfonietta.

· The world premiere of a harp concerto written by composition and economics major Natsumi Osborn and performed by harp and French major Hannah Allen with Weiss’ Contemporary Music Ensemble.

· Aaron Wonson, a fourth-year piano student of professor Peter Takács, performing Ligeti’s Piano Concerto with the Sinfonietta.

· Cello professor Dmitry Kouzov teaming up with Sinfonietta for Paul Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 3, Op 36.

· Harpsichord professor Mark Edwards performing Ellen Zwilich’s Concerto Grosso “1985” with the Chamber Orchestra.

· World premieres by Victor Marquez and Reinaldo Moya, and a world premiere by TIMARA professor Tom Lopez that will incorporate audiovisual effects.

“The students are so glad to be playing together again,” says Weiss. “Life spent exclusively on Zoom is not a rich life. I often hear unsolicited thoughts from students—I’m so excited to be starting this project! Everything I’ve done this week has been on Zoom. They really value these opportunities, not just for what they offer artistically and musically, but also in terms of community.”

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