Saturday night, the Student Symphony gave a concert featuring three works: “Gesture I” by Andrea Mazzariello ’00, Symphony No. 92 (“Oxford”), by Franz Josef Haydn, and “Treasures of the Snow,” by visiting composer Donald Erb. I like the term “sound-world” as a term to describe the underlying musical scene that a listener experiences at any given moment in a piece, and that concept is a good one to use in discussing this concert.
The concert opened with the long-awaited premiere of Mazzariello’s composition, fully titled “Gesture I for Orchestral Machine” and divided into three sections: “Not Pure Color,” “Wash” and “Syntax.” The work “describes” a single musical gesture in slow motion, with the first part delivering the initial blow, the second providing an echo, and the third slowly decaying and collapsing in on itself.
Much of Mazzariello’s work to date has been conceived in terms of the development of a particular musical idea, and this piece represents an interesting version of that compositional philosophy: the development of the idea of a single gesture.
In “Gesture I,” Mazzariello drops us into a variety of interesting sound-worlds and asks us to accept them for what they are, providing little in the way of entrance or development. These worlds are finely crafted and intense in a variety of ways, but it’s unclear what the listener is supposed to do once he or she has accepted being in that world. In a sense, this piece is reminiscent of minimalism in that it asks the listener to focus on the sound-world itself and rely less on traditional forms of development and progression.
The first part of this piece is violent and chaotic, with extremely effective writing both in terms of material and instrumentation. The second part provides a release from the tension of the first section, but here the writing is sparser and there is less forward motion.
The third part returns to the rhythmic, driving intensity of the first section, but it moves in the opposite direction of the first, collapsing in on itself instead of exploding outward. Mazzariello, who conducted his own piece, did a fine job pulling the orchestra together. I’ll discuss this piece a little more in comparison to the Erb.
Following Mazzariello’s work, Dan Perttu ’01 conducted Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony. Haydn wrote 104 Symphonies and this is generally considered one of his greatest and most difficult. The work consumed the bulk of the time in this concert, but much of the performance lacked the energy necessary to keep the audience interested.
Under normal circumstances, the Student Symphony probably could have done a great job with this piece. But given the fact that its members needed to practice the difficult Mazza-riello and Erb compositions, they didn’t have time to give the Haydn the attention to detail that it needed.
The result was a Haydn that was too slow and too flat, despite Perttu’s best efforts to keep it interesting, which were considerable but fairly futile under the circumstances.
The last piece on the concert was Donald Erb’s “Treasures of the Snow,” a work written for a high school ensemble in 1973. It’s a very effective piece, full of rich, unusual orchestral colors and textures. In three movements, the piece is similar to Mazzariello’s work in its structure of aggressive/calm/aggressive.
Erb is one of the great orchestral composers of the 20th century; even within the sound-worlds he creates there is always a sense of motion, growth, or change. When we stay with a particular sound for an extended period of time, it is to give that sound added emphasis. In “Gesture I,” I enjoyed certain moments very much but felt somewhat lost in general. In “Treasures of the Snow,” the work as a whole felt more satisfying because it took us places more gradually.
It’s not really fair to compare Mazzariello’s work to Erb’s, but by having them both on the concert such a comparison is inevitable. I’m glad that I didn’t have to deal with such a comparison when my work was played by the Student Symphony in February! With that said, Mazzariello’s work held up well next to that of the much more experienced composer, and he showed an Erb-like flair for creating interesting orchestral sounds. It was a gutsy piece to write for this ensemble, and he managed to pull it off with style.
I must note that the Symphony did a very good job playing these difficult pieces, especially the two contemporary works on the program. Mazzariello’s piece came through very well, and the Erb received a satisfying performance.
Finally, I think I speak for everyone who knows him and his work when I say that Greg Bloch ’99 will be missed as the conductor of the Student Symphony. I’ve enjoyed watching him bob and bounce on the podium for two years, and though I have full confidence that Dan Perttu will do a great job as his replacement, things won’t be the same without Greg here to conduct and kvetch a little. When you see him, wish him luck in Berkeley!