On the fabled New York City stage where musical dreams come true, dreams of a different sort took wing on December 2.
Nearly 200 student musicians from Oberlin College and Conservatory presented a performance of works spanning three centuries in magnificent Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall. The private gala was held for the 77th General Assembly of the United Nations.
The evening signaled the symbolic launch of an innovative new partnership between Oberlin College and Conservatory, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research New York Office (UNITAR), and the Global Foundation for the Performing Arts (GFPA). Oberlin is one of a select number of higher education institutions invited by UNITAR and the GFPA to participate in initiatives intended to improve access to education for students around the world and to enhance quality of life through education and the performing arts.
The concert was dedicated to the work of Csaba Kőrösi, president of the U.N. General Assembly, and to diplomatic and U.N. staff communities around the world. It was sponsored by the U.N. Member States of Costa Rica, Ecuador, Monaco, Oman, Rwanda, Singapore, and Hungary.
“Culture matters,” GFPA President Benjamin Woodroffe noted in his opening address to an audience of 1,800 diplomats and invited guests. “The arts can change lives, and the performing arts—music, dance, and theater—can sometimes say things that other mediums cannot. Collaboration is key, and this ensemble behind me has worked solidly and diligently for a number of months in a different part of the country to be here tonight. Music moves people, and a healthy society has a healthy arts sector.”
A Musical Expression of Unity
Titled “A Watershed Moment: Transformative Solutions to Interlocking Challenges,” the evening’s theme acknowledged the critical juncture in the history of the U.N., a moment fueled by complex crises including the COVID-19 pandemic, international conflict, heightening issues related to climate change, global economic strain, and unprecedented humanitarian challenges.
What transpired onstage offered an affirmation of the transformative power of music to uplift, to fortify, and to heal.
Under the direction of Raphael Jiménez, a professor of conducting and director of Oberlin Orchestras since 2011, the program opened with Fanfare on Amazing Grace, Adolphus Hailstork’s triumphal interpretation of the enduringly powerful 18th-century spiritual. At the conclusion of the piece, Jiménez turned to scan the audience in search of Hailstork, who attended the concert. Before the conductor could locate the 81-year-old composer in the darkened hall, he rose from his seat near the back of the room and cheerfully bellowed, “If you’re looking for the composer, he’s out here. Hi folks!” as a redoubled round of applause arose around him.
Following remarks by Woodroffe, Kőrösi, and Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar, the program continued with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, the intellectually vibrant and emotionally charged work that revived the young composer at a time of early disillusionment with classical music. The performance featured soloist Byron Wei-Xin Zhou, a pianist on the artist roster of the GFPA.
Closing the program was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125—widely regarded as a celebration of irrepressible unity, with its iconic “Ode to Joy” hearkening back to an earlier performance of the work some 73 years ago, when Leonard Bernstein conducted it on the occasion of the U.N.’s historic Human Rights Day Concert at Carnegie Hall in 1949. Oberlin’s U.N. performance called upon the talents of 110 voices, encompassing the Oberlin College Choir and Musical Union, and featuring Oberlin alumni vocalists from the New York City area and four celebrated soloists: Oberlin alumni mezzo-soprano Kathryn Leemhuis ’05 and tenor Joshua Blue ’16, as well as soprano Sarah Tisba and baritone Marco Chingari, both of Italy. It marked the first time an Oberlin Orchestra led by Jiménez has performed Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony, a daunting task for orchestras of any pedigree.
For the many Oberlin students and alumni who graced Carnegie’s stage for the first time, the performance offered an indelible milestone in their musical journeys and an inspirational moment to fuel their continued artistic development.
“Carnegie Hall is something we all aspire to,” said second-year soprano Ava Paul of Grand Junction, Colorado. Like many in the ensembles, the trip for Paul marked not only her first visit to Carnegie Hall, but also her first voyage to New York. “When I say I’m a singer, people always say, ‘Oh, are you going to play Carnegie Hall someday?’ Now I can say, ‘Yes, I actually am.’ It’s sort of a pinnacle I didn’t think I’d get to this soon in my career.”
First-year alto Kat Kahler, a musical studies major in Oberlin’s College of Arts and Sciences from Charlottesville, Virginia, once visited Carnegie Hall to take in a performance as a middle-school student. “I can’t comprehend that it’s actually me on the stage now,” she said. “This is not something that a first-year in college normally does, and it’s just amazing.”
For others, like oboist Clarissa Antoine of Walnut, California, the concert represented a capstone of sorts as graduation nears.
“Tonight was my last concert with the Oberlin Orchestra, and for that to mean playing Beethoven 9 for the United Nations Gala at Carnegie Hall is mind-blowing,” she said. “I’m so proud to be a part of this. Every rehearsal leading up to this performance has been so fulfilling, and I couldn’t ask for a better way to finish my time at Oberlin.”
Concertmaster Matthew Cone, a fourth-year student from Buffalo, New York, alternated throughout the program between expressions of resolute focus and giddy exuberance.
“It’s been an honor leading the orchestra for this concert,” he said. “Having this responsibility has been a great experience for me, and I’m super proud of us and all of the progress we have made over the past month. Playing such incredible music at Carnegie is an experience that I’m sure none of us will ever forget.”
Worldwide Embrace of Education and the Arts
Announced in September, the partnership with UNITAR and the GFPA calls for a select number of U.S. institutions to invite applications from students around the world, with accepted students beginning degree programs as early as fall 2023. According to the agreement, Oberlin will be the lone participating institution to welcome undergraduate students. Beginning in summer 2023, Oberlin also will host an annual summer program for English speakers of other languages, an opportunity for students selected through the partnership to hone their language skills prior to beginning their education at Oberlin and other U.S. partner campuses.
“Article 1 of our charter says that the United Nations is to be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations,” President Kőrösi said in his address. “Much of what we are doing here—and most everything that we want to achieve—is about reaching harmony through listening to each other, acting together, and understanding the deeper context together. Just like a work of art, harmony among our nations means peace. Harmony all over the globe means solidarity. Harmony in our hearts means respect.”
President Ambar followed with an expression of Oberlin’s enthusiasm to be a key partner in the initiative, aligning the work that lies ahead with Oberlin’s historical commitment to improving access to education.
“We believe that espousing art and education is an embrace of our common humanity, and this approach is a way to change the world,” Ambar said. “But we are under no illusion that Oberlin can do this work alone. We believe that bold collaborations of like-minded institutions can achieve true, transformational progress. This partnership, for us, is about pursuing this effort to do good in the world…together.”
The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) was established in 1963 pursuant to a United Nations General Assembly resolution. UNITAR is governed by a Board of Trustees with the mission to develop the individual, institutional, and organizational capacities of countries and other United Nations stakeholders through high-quality learning resources. Rooted in the goal of enhancing global decision-making and supporting country-level political and social action, UNITAR provides innovative learning resources to individuals, organizations, and institutions, with established programs offering advanced degrees in international leadership, diplomacy, law, and policy, as well as science and business. The partnership marks UNITAR’s first major program in arts and cultural education.
The Global Foundation for the Performing Arts (GFPA) is an international foundation with a mission to provide valuable artistic education and professional support in service of those in the performing arts while fostering a global community and enabling cross-cultural exchange. A longstanding partner of UNITAR, the foundation is dedicated to supporting the performing arts, particularly in the realms of classical music and ballet through education, mentorship, and collaboration. GFPA is centered in the belief that young artists deserve professional guidance from experienced musicians in order to remain true to their artistic practice. The foundation provides advice to artists, competitions, and institutions dedicated to rewarding the world’s future performers. It has been a long-term partner of UNITAR.
Oberlin College and Conservatory uniquely combines a world-class conservatory of music with a top-ranking liberal arts college. An independent institution in Ohio, Oberlin was the first college to grant undergraduate degrees to women in a coeducational program and, historically, has been a leader in the education of African American students. The Oberlin community is known for its commitment to social and global engagement and diversity. The Conservatory of Music provides flexible programs to prepare students as professional musicians and teachers of music. Deeply committed to academic excellence, Oberlin’s College of Arts and Sciences offers a rich and balanced curriculum in the humanities, social sciences, mathematics, and natural sciences. Recognizing that diversity broadens perspectives, Oberlin is dedicated to recruiting a culturally, economically, geographically, and racially diverse group of students. Oberlin aims to prepare graduates with the knowledge, skills, and perspectives essential to confront complex issues and to create change and value in the world.
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