What if we put on a concert, and no one came?
On Friday night, Chapin Hall was filled to about one-third of capacity for an outstanding concert by the New England Conservatory Honors Orchestra, conducted by Richard Hoenich. The program featured the premiere of a work by Professor of music David Kechley, “Transformations: an Orchestral Triptych,” as well as works by Christopher Rouse and Tchaikovsky. It is rare to have an outside orchestra come to Williams, and we were treated to a fine performance by a group of young but talented musicians. But no one showed up to hear them.
The program should have appealed to a wide audience. Professor Kechley’s piece was at times exciting and beautiful, and maintained its energy throughout the three very different movements. The first, “Still on the Edge,” is my personal favorite. Kechley takes a simple motive and plays with it rhythmically and coloristically until it reemerges in its original state. The second, “Funeral Music with Dance,” is otherworldly, with somber overtones that disappear as it builds towards the powerful climax. The final movement, “Past Refrains,” consists mainly of a simple theme repeated a small number of times. It works because of its brevity and provides a satisfying end to a very good piece.
Beyond the quality of the piece, “Transformations” is also notable for its accessibility. I attended the concert with two friends, neither of whom generally listens to contemporary music, but both of whom absolutely loved Kechley’s piece, a sentiment echoed by the rest of the audience. The same held true for Christopher Rouse’s marvelous Flute Concerto, which they liked less but still enjoyed. The Rouse is a reflective work, one of a series of concertos written about specific deaths. It employs a great deal of tonality in its folk-based elements, and also includes the loud, percussive “bang chords” that Rouse is most well-known for.
The work which my friends liked least was the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, though it is one of the most popular pieces in the concert repertoire. Needless to say, the fact that they preferred two works written in this decade to an overplayed romantic symphony gave me great pleasure! Of course, both Kechley and Rouse are composers who write with a large audience in mind. Had the orchestra played a work by Elliot Carter or Luciano Berio, I don’t know that the casual listeners in attendance would have responded so favorably.
The lack of a better turnout at an event such as this, which was one of the major music department concerts for the fall semester, calls into question the role of the department. Should they only provide concerts which would most benefit music majors? Or should they attempt to reach a larger audience, as seemed to be the case last night? Given the turnout, as much as I hate to say it, it seems futile to endeavor for the latter.
I should note that the orchestra played very well, despite a few moments which reminded me that it was, in fact, a student orchestra. Of course, the Tanglewood Music Center orchestra, comprised of some of the best student performers from around the world, consistently outperforms the Boston Symphony Orchestra each summer at the Tanglewood Music Festival. But I digress from the point at hand: the NEC Honors Orchestra did a very fine job, and should be congratulated along with Mr. Hoenich, the conductor.
Is it possible that students simply did not know about this concert? Yes, though it is rather unlikely. Perhaps this article will pique someone’s interest enough that they might attend a future concert sponsored by the music department, or perhaps the Department will respond by increasing the amount of advertising for future events. I was genuinely embarrassed last night and hope that something like this doesn’t happen againâ€”but it probably will.