When Beethoven’s opera Fidelio was first performed in Vienna in 1805, the patrons were slightly nervous. After all, the French were in the midst of invading the Viennese and cannons could be heard even from within the concert hall. Friday evening in Chapin Hall, The Williams Student Symphony gave a concert under markedly better conditions; the fireworks marking the opening of Winter Carnival 1998 had been launched the night before, giving Gregory Bloch ‘99 the go-ahead for a pleasant evening of uninterrupted music.
Fortunately for all of the budding musicologists out there, we can rest assured that fireworks would not have been appropriate Friday evening, even for historical accuracy. The Overture to Fidelio Op. 72b, was not performed as part of the opera until 1814, well after Napolean’s sweep through Austria. This is actually a source of confusion for musicians. There are three overtures that were used over the nine years between the premiere of Fidelio and the introduction of the overture we heard Friday. Perhaps it is the composer’s own uncertainty as to which overture belonged to his opera that allows Op.72b to stand so well by itself.
Bloch, conductor and the director of the 44 piece orchestra, calmly led the group through the piece, relying on his experience to get the french horns through a technically demanding and respiratorily taxing section. It did not take long for the orchestra to settle in and take the piece into its comfort zone. The first-year only clarinet section, comprised of Ryan McNaughton and Joel Iams, delivered splendid duets throughout the piece. The entire string section did a nice job of building the long Adagio section in the ensuing Allegro as well. After this, the overture’s occasionally jumpy character came though effectively, as scored by the composer.
Next the symphony went back in time a bit, ending the first half of the concert with a late work of Henry Purcell entitled “The Virtuous Wife.” The piece is interesting in that it was written around 1694, but edited more than 220 years after Purcell’s death by Gustav Holst, adapting the score to a slightly more modern setting. Holst’s tendancies to use tremendous variance of orchestral color certainly does not find its way into his edition of “The Virtuous Wife.” Instead, he removes the harpsichord, reassigns notes when necessary, and the result is still a piece that sounds decisively baroque (Purcell’s era). It is safe to assume that Bloch chose the Holst edition for at least three reasons. First, he has a large orchestra compared to that of Purcell’s day. Second, the use of a 20th century score affords the conductor more opportunity to control the pace and mood of the piece (current trends dictate that baroque music ought to be played in a specific way, leaving conducting duties fairly boring and not entirely necessary). Finally, he may just like it more than the original, and as they say, the conductor is always right.
During the overture of the Purcell, the symphony was its most accurate. The fugue was well played, each string section seeming to have a good sense of balance and sensitivity. The addition of the woodwinds to the fugue finished the movement off nicely.
Six movements in length, the piece flies by quickly. A climax, the Minuet in which the trumpets take an obligato type line above the rest of the orchestra, was probably the finest moment of the entire evening. The fantastic tone, vibrato, and blend between trumpet players Paul Friedberg ‘01 and Randall Linquist ‘00 brought a smile to this music critic’s face.
After a brief intermission, Bloch took the podium for the final time of the evening to conduct the music of one of America’s most beloved composers, Aaron Copland. The movie “Our Town” was released in 1940 and was later revised by Copland for performances in the symphonic setting. Incidently, the score was nominated for an Oscar but lost out to “Pinnochio.”
The piece itself begins as so many famous Copland works do: simply. Of his most famous works “Billy the Kid” and “Appalachian Spring” begin with tonic triads. “Rodeo,” tragically best known as the music to the “Beef! It’s what’s for dinner” ad campaign, begins with a descending major scale. The film score to “The Red Pony” has a main theme that begins with three major triads in a row. So guess how “Our Town” begins? Indeed, Copland gives us that major triad.
Performing the first 30 bars of any slow Copland orchestral piece should not be too difficult (unless you are a brass player being asked to play extremely quietly, which is the case in “Our Town”). However, the piece builds in texture and fabricated emotion. It is easy to peak too soon in a Copland work, sentencing the rest of the piece the task of trying to keep up the emotional outpour that Copland’s music suggests. This is where a conductor and an orchestra must exhibit tremendous control. Bloch managed to do this extremely well. The piece began hauntingly, with delicately the played glockenspiel in the background and moved into a section of trading solo lines with notable contributions from Oboist Carolyn Stickney ‘00. Most importantly to a piece of this nature, it peaked when it should have and did not wither away in the end.
When you hear the sound of such a piece, you can only think of film music. To put it bluntly, with the score from “Our Town,” Copland isn’t saying anything musically. He wrote the music purely to accentuate certain moments and themes in the movie. Even today, James Horner, Hollywood’s most succesful composer as of late, rips off the sound that Copland helped invent (see “Field of Dreams,” “Glory,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “Apollo 13,” “Braveheart,” “Titanic”), and he is one of many. Copland himself complained (as early as 1949 in the New York Times) that most film music was “governed by conventions.” He was right, and he still is. However, film music is taking its place in the symphonic literature, like it or not.
Leaving the podium Bloch recieved a warm reception from the audience. That set up the final selection of the evening, Johannes Brahms’ Tragic Overture Op. 81 conducted by Elliot Sohn ‘98. Sohn is what one might call a calorie-burning-conductor. He gets into it. As a result, the student symphony looks the most poised and professional under his swift baton. With sturdy gestures he does however risk exposing his orchestra, when they aren’t quite following his emphatic lead. However, the risk mostly pays off. His style brings the orchestra a wider variety of dynamic, something necessary in a crowd pleaser such as the “Tragic Overture.” Additionally, there is quite a bit going on in the score. In particular Sohn payed the strings a lot of attention, and they responded with a solid techinical effort.
Not only are the dynamics constantly changing in this work, but so are the tempos, textures, and mood. It takes an energetic conductor to pull this one off and Sohn fits the bill.