December 19, 2018
Erich Burnett
Oberlin in NYC (colorful graphic)

Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble debuts at Dizzy’s Club; Oberlin Orchestra and Oberlin College Choir pair up at Carnegie Hall.

Opportunities to perform on spectacular stages are key to the development of every Oberlin Conservatory musician.

For more than 160 Oberlin students, a singular opportunity to do just that arises early in the new year. On January 16, the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble will make its New York City debut with a pair of sets at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, an intimate venue with breathtaking views of the city.

photo of Oberlin College Choir
Gregory Ristow and the Oberlin College Choir
(photo by Larry Kasperek)

Three days later, the Oberlin College Choir and Oberlin Orchestra take the stage at Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage for a program that includes master works by Stravinsky and Debussy.

In between those concerts, members of the Sonny Ensemble will visit area high schools and youth arts organizations, including Jazz House Kids in New Jersey, performing for and engaging with a future generation of musicians.

The trip presents current students with an unforgettable opportunity to shine on two of the world’s brightest stages. It also allows Oberlin alumni—many of whom will likely be in attendance—to celebrate their undergraduate roots.

The January 19 Carnegie Hall performance will be highlighted by two landmark compositions: Stravinsky’s rarely performed Les Noces—featuring the Oberlin College Choir and four soloists, and conducted by Gregory Ristow ’01—and Debussy’s La Mer, performed by the Oberlin Orchestra under the direction of Raphael Jiménez. Also featured are Triptych by Tarik O’Regan and All These Lighted Things by Oberlin composition professor Elizabeth Ogonek.

photo of Oberlin Orchestra
Raphael Jiménez and the Oberlin Orchestra
Photo by John Seyfried

“For the orchestral part of the program, Elizabeth Ogonek's piece demonstrates the strength of our fantastic composition faculty,” says Jiménez. “Her music is energetic at times, with muscular musical gestures and jazzy rhythms, but it also shares with Les Noces an affinity for the suggestive and the evocative. La Mer is an amazing showcase for every instrument and gives all our students in the orchestra moments to shine.”

For soprano Katherine Lerner Lee ’19, one of five soloists in Les Noces, the engagement is a sort of homecoming: Lee was born and raised in Brooklyn, and she expects many family members—from the Big Apple and from as far as California—to attend the Carnegie Hall performance.

“It’s a little less scary because I’m at home in the city,” says Lee, a fifth-year double-degree student pursuing vocal performance and French. Unlike most of her fellow musicians, she has already performed at Carnegie Hall, as a violinist in her grade school orchestra. “I’ve actually been to Carnegie Hall, which makes it a little less daunting—only a little though!”

photo of Katherine Lerner Lee
Soprano soloist Katherine Lerner Lee
Photo by Julie Gulenko ’15

Lee craved the opportunity to perform Stravinsky’s challenging work from the moment she first learned it was being auditioned.

“It’s just such a completely iconic piece,” she says, noting the immense power of the percussion ensemble—including four pianos—that plays with her and her fellow soloists. “It’s one of those pieces that you inhabit, but it’s probably not a piece that you ever know by heart. It’s a lot of sound, and the biggest challenge for me is to find my own way of cutting through the noise and staying true to the integrity of your instrument and your voice. And it’s in Russian, so that’s hard to do as well!”

For Lee, the Carnegie Hall performance is one of numerous high-profile appearances during a standout Oberlin career. She was the soloist in a performance of Harrison Birtwistle’s Entr'actes and Sappho Fragments with the Contemporary Music Ensemble at the Cleveland Museum of Art and again for a performance of Louis Andriessen’s De Staat and Michael Gordon’s No Anthem at the Bang on a Can 30th Anniversary Marathon at New York’s Brooklyn Museum, both in the spring semester of 2017. She also sang the role of Susanna in Oberlin Opera Theater’s fall 2017 production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.

“But none of those were at Carnegie Hall!” she is quick to add.

The January concerts in New York continue a long-held tradition of immersing Oberlin students in real-world performance settings all over the globe, from grand stages in major cities to makeshift stages in regions affected by natural disasters and other hardships. In January 2016, the Oberlin Orchestra performed at Chicago’s Symphony Center and the Contemporary Music Ensemble held court at Ganz Hall; both concerts commemorated Oberlin Conservatory’s 150th anniversary. In the past year alone, Oberlin student ensembles and individual musicians have been heard in hurricane-battered regions of Texas and Puerto Rico, in Jordan, Africa, Panama, Brazil, and Japan, as well as in locales across the U.S.

For the Oberlin Orchestra, January marks its first performance in Carnegie Hall since January 2013, when Jiménez was also at the helm.

“A tour to Carnegie Hall offers our students the opportunity to practice an important skill: the ability to quickly adjust to the characteristics of an unfamiliar concert hall,” says Jiménez. “Even when you have mastered the complexities of the repertoire, the acoustics of a new hall bring an additional challenge. The reality is that you have only a few minutes of rehearsal to make the hall sing with you.”

photo of Sonny Ensemble
The Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble
Photo by Tanya Rosen-Jones ’97

The New York experience begins January 16 with the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble and alumnus Sullivan Fortner ’08, an award-winning and Grammy-nominated jazz pianist. Composed of 10 conservatory jazz students selected via audition, the Sonny Ensemble was formed in 2018 through a gift to Oberlin from the legendary saxophone player. Each member of the ensemble is called on by Rollins himself to serve humanity through music; in addition to regular performances, the ensemble’s members will engage in a variety of community outreach efforts.

In New York, the Sonny Ensemble will perform two sets at Dizzy’s on January 16: one at 7:30 and another at 9:30. Fortner, a favorite performer at Dizzy’s, will perform solo works and in collaboration with the Sonny Ensemble.

“It goes without saying that Sonny could have chosen any school in the world for this honor,” says Bobby Ferrazza, director of Jazz Studies at Oberlin. “This is a singular program: a student group that has the endorsement of one of the greatest figures in the history of jazz. Their mission is like a powerful medicine that starts as a little shot in your arm and soon permeates your entire being. Sonny's invocation to serve humanity through music, to be good people and to give back, will stay with all of us for the rest of our lives.”

photo of Sullivan Fortner
Sullivan Fortner
Photo by Tanya Rosen-Jones ’97

The Sonny Ensemble will present an Oberlin preview of its performance on January 14 in the conservatory's Clonick Hall. The choir and orchestra will follow with a January 16 preview in Finney Chapel. 

To learn more about Oberlin Conservatory’s 2019 performances in New York City and to purchase tickets, please visit oberlin.edu/oberlin-in-nyc.

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