Even at a great concert given by a professional orchestra, there can be moments when a critic’s mind wanders just because of the raw length of the program. But in a consistently entertaining and brief 45 minutes program by the Williams Student Symphony, we were given a taste of some of the most famous works of symphonic literature without nearing mental exhaustion.
In front of a half-filled Chapin Hall, Dan Perttu ’01 made his conducting debut with the symphony with Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute (Ky. 620), which led off the strongest performance by the group in some time. The Magic Flute was written between July and September of 1791. It is comprised of an entire two and a half hour opera plus several other pieces he wrote in that time. The plot of the opera is completely silly. It is about an Egyptian prince lost in a forest where he befriends a birdcatcher. Together they end up setting off to save Pamina, the supposed damsel in distress, and brave a few adventures along the way (including the dreaded trial by fire and water). It’s a joke. However, many believe that Mozart chose it as a safe guise in which to make subtle references to certain political and religious climates in Austria that were pervasive at the time.
Maybe so, but this opera (and this overture) is completely frivolous, fun and, yes, brilliant. Perttu has a looming and serious presence at the podium, which may not be fitting to the mood of this piece, whether in symphonic setting or not. Perttu chose a rather slow opening tempo for the bright opening chords, which come in sets of three (said to represent the call of the Masons, they are a reference to Mozart’s philosophical and religious beliefs late in his life). At first, Perttu was stern, but he slowly gave into what is one of the most lighthearted and playful overtures ever written. The fugue subject that the violins take up is full of life, and Perttu cracked a smile and gestured the second violins to give him a little more bounce during the initial statements.
From there the motion really took off with an excellent sense of balance between the sections of the symphony, particularly the tradeoffs between the strings’ and woodwinds’ solos. Among these call and response phrases, clarinet principal Jonathan Salter’s ’02 short solo stood out. From there the performance coasted to its finale wherein the symphony produced some of its most powerful and reverberant sounds.
Director Greg Bloch ’99 then took over conducting responsibilities, leading the symphony in BÃ©la BartÃ³k’s Rumanian Folk Dances (composed in 1917) and finally the Suite from Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece ballet Swan Lake.
I had never heard Rumanian Folk Dances before but I think that it is easy to get a sense of what the piece does: it states a series of folk themes, each above its own distinct texture which BartÃ³k added. Joc Cu BÃ¢ta, the first movement, alternates between a few different modes, and the alternation’s standard scales vividly illustrate the style of the Rumanian song. The subtle changes in mode probably make for interesting live dance, as Bloch alluded to in his notes on the program. Jessica Robbins ’01 added a quiet piccolo solo doubling the violins at one point, demonstrating one of BartÃ³k’s many orchestral tricks that evoke imagery of peasant life. Such devices are spread throughout the piece, comprised of seven short and connected movements.
The Suite from Swan Lake is among Tchaikovsky’s most beloved pieces. “Scene,” which contains the most famous theme in the ballet (which recurs at various throughout), is so programmatic to the climate of the ballet (freezing cold) that one almost wished for a little Williamstown snow to add to the effect. Nevertheless, the performance was assured, featuring a distinct contrast between the oboe solo by Kate Alexander ’02 and the deliberately harsh stringed tremolos that eventually led to a healthy forte.
There is some debate as to whether the Mozart and Tchaikovsky pieces can stand independently from the larger works from which they are drawn. As Perttu aptly points out, the sonata form of the Mozart makes the overture seem like its own entity. Personally, I believe that the Mozart is one long conscious thought that was probably composed in a single day, maybe two. On the other hand, the Tchaikovsky movements are sometimes less structured and meant to accompany an intricate and glorified form of dance.
The Waltz (pas de deux) doesn’t stand well on its own because it is highly dance oriented, but the symphony played it with gusto. Bloch had the symphony displaying a wide variety of sonorities and dynamics that were interwoven comfortably (in the past similar transitions have been labored by the symphony). The dynamic contrasts, which are many, were never too abrupt; in fact the accuracy of the orchestra really highlighted those changes. The violin’s melodic accompaniment to first-year trumpet player Jonathan Othmer’s controlled solo showed the signs of well rehearsed musicians who were not always buried in their scores.