For the first time this year, the Williams Student Symphony opted for a program that focused on one time period rather than a period spanning several centuries. On Saturday afternoon we heard the music of three composers who were born in the 19th century, who wrote with similar ideals and musical goals. It may come as no surprise to a history student that the music of Smetana, Dvorak and Grieg heard on the program (completed in 1880, 1894 and 1875 respectively) were nationalistic in character. They often derived music from folk songs (or invented folk songs) in their attempt to capture the glory of their country in their flashy scores. These are flag-waving songs with hummable tunes. New orchestral timbres that were being explored in the late 1900s make the pieces particularly easy to listen to because they begin to resemble some of the musical idioms we recognize today.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the opening of “The Moldau” from My Fatherland by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana. The texture is lined with rushing movement from the woodwinds. This unmistakably is Smetana’s “water” effect, in his attempt to portray the movement of the Moldau river; the music is thick with imagery. The symphony, conducted by Elliott Sohn ’98 was effective in the sections played in unison, staying accurate most of the time. There are not any gigantic risks in the piece, as it is fairly easy to play; there also is not much pressure on the individual performer since the sections tend to play together.
In Antonin Dvorak’s “In Nature’s Realm,” quite the opposite is true. There are many exposed moments that are dispersed throughout the orchestra, leaving an out-of-tune soloist in a bit of trouble. While flautist Christine Pace ‘01 was consistent (as she has been all year), some others were not as spectacular, mainly due to difficulty in tuning. Student Symphony Director Greg Bloch ’99 led the orchestra admirably throughout the Dvorak. Following this piece, he acknowledged departing seniors with the gift of the traditional Symphony Chocolate Bar.
Finally, Sohn returned to the podium for his final performance as conductor of the Symphony for the always enjoyable Peer Gynt Suite. With his usual intensity on hold, Sohn led the symphony through “Morning Mood.” It is tough to dislike this movement. It has a simple theme, nice orchestration, and it builds up beautifully. Its modulations can give you shivers. Therefore it should be no surprise that this piece has been commercialized like no other. If you have not heard this piece in movies or on television, then you probably have heard it on “relaxation tapes.” It is truly amazing how this piece shows up everywhere without regard for the composers original intentions. Despite the reputation for this piece to have too much “schmaltz,” Sohn kept it under control and succeeded in not milking it too much.
The fourth movement is a very well known piece of music as well: “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is a show stopper (also used by media-types to no end). It builds up from a quiet creepy tune into a full throttle frenzy that comes to a driving halt. The bassoon solo, played by Dan Perttu ’01, was pronounced and well characterized. In the climax, the three member percussion section drowned out the strings a bit; however, at that point in the piece, the listener should be fairly aquainted with the theme. The final cadences are often difficult to control, but Sohn commanded the symphony and kept them fairly tight.