Student Symphony plays Chapin Hall

Saturday’s Student Symphony Concert provided the somewhat rare opportunity to hear a world premiere of an orchestral work. Judd Greenstein ’01, Independent Music Project president, wrote “Celestial Episode” last December during vacation and revised it during Winter Study. While Williams students may be spoiled by having renowned composers such as David Kechley and Robert Suderburg as professors whose works have been periodically premiered in Chapin Hall, it is in fact rare to have an undergraduate writing coherent symphonic music; it is even more exceptional to have such a work performed before a substantial audience. Saturday’s audience included Greenstein’s parents and sisters, who were up from New York City for the occasion.

Greensteins’s score calls for a wide variety of sonorities in the full orchestral setting and uses an unexpected mix of tonal idioms ranging from polytonality to straightforward traditional chord progression and treatment of melodic material. After a scatter of sounds and timbres in the opening moments of the piece which amount to the use of melodic and rhythmic imitation between a several solo instruments, we are hit with a few unexpected major chords. These introductory chords lead to an expansive section of the piece in which Greenstein delves into the traditional treatments aforementioned. This string heavy section of the score is particularly surprising to those who know some of Judd’s previous compositional work. While this is arguably Greenstein’s first major work since his “Suite for Piano” was nationally honored in a composers’ competition last year, it is doubtful that “Episode” represents a change of emphasis in his composing; the stringed section most likely represents a skillful composer choosing not to pass up the opportunity to write simple and accessible music with a specific audience in mind, especially in his first full orchestral composition. The piece builds out of the stringed middle section into a frenzied finale that contains a demanding piccolo obligato (played masterfully by Jessica Robbins ’01) over a busy orchestra. This closing section vividly reminded me of the end of “Jupiter,” from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.” Not only is the finale effective and emotionally engaging with its rhythmically pulsing open fifths, but Greenstein may be paying homage to a composer who defined much of what modern listeners identify as “outer-space” music.

In addition to “Celestial Episode,” the other pieces on the program were Jean Sibelius’ “Karelia Suite,” and Aaron Copland’s Suite “The Tender Land” from his opera of the same name.

Jean Sibelius, arguably Finland’s greatest composer, lived during a very musically turbulent time – from 1865 to 1957. Given those dates, one might expect a musical style resembling anything from Brahms to Bartok or Schoenberg to Stravinsky. However, Sibelius ignored all of them. Incorporating simple elegance and fervent patriotism, he carved out an essentially neoclassical style. His music carries a deep Scandinavian spirit.

Written in 1893, the “Karelia Suite” is one of Sibelius’ early works. Its three movements alternate between bombastic passages (Yay, Finland!) and sentimental melodies (Ahhh, Finland.) that create a moving statement about the homeland Sibelius adored. As it is a very early work, much of Sibelius’ musical development occurred after this piece was written. The patriotism exhibited in the music, when evaluated without the context, gives a feeling of excitement but feels empty, but then a century later, it is difficult to recapture the nationalistic fervor of 1893 Finland. In that way, the “Karelia Suite” serves as a piece of history, a relic of a bygone era.

After Sibelius’ piece, the symphony leapt forward to 1954 and Copland’s suite from “The Tender Land”, his only opera and one of his few musical failures. Having never heard the entire opera, I can not comment on why the work failed, especially in light of this beautiful suite. Copland has a personal sound, which is familiar to most listeners; think of “Rodeo” or the Shaker theme from “Appalachian Spring.” Widely spaced chords, simple but beautiful melodies and rhythmic punch are part of Copland’s charm.

Copland’s music brings wonderful sounds out of an orchestra. A listener should find many more interesting colors in the Copland piece when comparing its orchestral sound to that of the Sibelius, although both pieces feature the same group of instruments.

The “Tender Land” suite is also divided into three movements. The first opens in a strong fashion that soon turns into a beautiful segment called simply “Love Music.” The second movement, “Party Scene,” is just that, and sounds overtly “American” to the point of absurdity. It’s amazing: Copland essentially invented this “American sound,” but now even he can’t avoid having it sound cliched.

Nevertheless, it is well-crafted music and very exciting, if a little silly. The last movement is truly touching, but has a typically hokey Copland title: “The Promise of Living.” I don’t want to sound as though I’m coming out against Copland. He’s a wonderful composer and this music is very good, but it is a little over the top at times.

Both of these suites are nationalistic and fairly populist as well, in the sense that both composers were writing with a broad audience in mind. In listening to Copland, one must keep in mind that he was capable of writing much more harmonically complex music than he did. He chose to write in an accessible style, a move that is being echoed by many composers today. Copland is the father of American music in many ways; perhaps populism is one of them.