Student Symphony offers a unique taste of England

One could read a lot into the order of the Williams Student Symphony program, in its first performance of the year. The all-English concert consisted of three quiet and nostalgic pastoral works, flanked by two grand pieces more like band music. Therefore, the overall form of the five pieces was arch-like, as if the directors of the group were fashioning one larger, more substantial work. If this was their intention, it was a gutsy move that paid off—none of the individual pieces has the length or dramatic development of a symphony or other large work to be the centerpiece of a concert and yet as a result of excellent program planning, they functioned as a group. The overall success of concert certainly cannot depend on good planning, however.

Generally, the symphony played well and some wonderful moments compensated for any perceivable rough edges. The more obvious difficulties came in the first offering of the evening, Handel’s “Overture” from Music for the Royal Fireworks. Conductor Dan Perttu ’01 has definitely grown as a conductor, showing more looseness with his baton than in many of his performances last year. Nevertheless, the brass section lacked confidence at times, problematic in music meant to accompany fireworks.

The symphony provided much more depth of sound for the remainder of the evening, including the Chansons of Edward Elgar (Op. 15, Nos. 1, 2). Notably, the symphony seemed to lock the thicker, characteristically British chords when given more time (i.e. the slower pieces). The melodic line at the opening of Chanson de Matin was crisp and lightly stated by the violins, managing to coexist with the focused tone from the solo oboe of Kate Alexander ’02.

The “Romanza” from Symphony No. 5 of Ralph Vaughan Williams (not the composer’s “Pastoral” symphony, No. 3, despite the concert’s “Pomp and Pastorialism” billing) was the only work on the program with distinct movement between moods and energy, excluding the Adagio introduction of the Handel. Under the skilled baton of Richard Giarusso ’00, who made his Student Symphony debut as guest conductor in this concert, two extremely effective emotional climaxes were attained, indeed the most stirring moments in the entire concert.

Here, the orchestra sounded its best, revealing its ability to deliver a firm, yet sensitive, performance. While there were plenty of nice moments in other pieces, the group sounded like a different set of musicians during the Vaughan Williams. The brass and wind choirs performed exceptionally as a unit, refreshing to hear after the shaky Handel. Concertmaster Gabriela Pereira ’00 capped the movement with a set of sublime short solo passages, the composer’s final romantic gesture for an emotionally taxing movement.

After the second Elgar Chanson, Giarusso returned for William Walton’s “Crown Imperial” (Coronation March), a finale and parting-shot display of “fireworks” completing this concert’s arch form, which I mentioned earlier. Though the tempo seemed a little rushed at first, it seemed right at home in the final coda. This piece, really a fun and flashy work, gave the percussion battery a chance to shine as well, adding tremendously to some already brilliant sounds from the orchestra, always supported by a sturdy and insistent cello line. French-dotted rhythms are prominent in this march, much like the Adagio of Handel which itself partakes of the similar baroque practice.

Whether the arch structure of the concert and the link between the Handel and Walton were meant to be commentaries on the long term continuity of the British Empire (with WWII as its triumphant final act), I cannot be sure; either way, this concert showed that careful selection and planning can turn a concert with an underlying theme into a more substantial offering when one would have otherwise expected an amorphous hodge-podge.

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