Student Symphony plays 19th century hits for all

The Williams College Student Symphony may be the single strangest organization on campus. It’s certainly one of the largest, boasting over 50 members, each of whom gains a certain degree of visibility not accorded members of other campus organizations. The Berkshire Symphony takes much of the College’s best musical talent, but what is left (including some two-orchestra players) is enough to form another orchestra, albeit one which can only muster hour-long programs consisting of mostly staid repertoire.

While this sounds like an attack on the orchestra, it’s only a mild one, and not one that’s necessarily meant to effect change. Most of the people I spoke with about Saturday night’s concert were quite impressed and had a good time. Musical Director Dan Perttu ’01 has grown tremendously as a conductor over the last two years, and other student conductors have had valuable experiences trying their hand in front of an orchestra. Students who perform in the ensemble have a good time and are exposed to repertoire in an intimate, participatory fashion. All these good effects are certainly enough to outweigh my concerns.

Of course, I’ll voice those concerns, anyway. I’m not convinced that hearing one of Dvorak’s Legends contributes much to anyone’s musical education, nor does yet another hearing of Carmen’s ubiquitous Carmen Suite No. 1. Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture is a more substantial work, but not much more so, and the fact that it was held up as the substantial foundation of the program speaks volumes about the fluffiness inherent in at least half of the repertoire on this concert. Perttu has done a fine job in managing the orchestra, but this concert left me empty and I found myself reading the program notes during much of the music in order to pass the time.

The one piece I haven’t yet mentioned is Debussy’s Nuages, one of the more interesting works to find its way onto a Student Symphony program in some while. I applaud Jeremy Faust ’01 for his decision to challenge the orchestra with this work. It was also a challenge to himself, as he had never conducted a full orchestra before. The piece was certainly too difficult for the orchestra to prepare in its limited rehearsal schedule, but they gave it a good effort and we all learned something from the experience.

After hearing countless flawless recordings of difficult repertoire, one forgets the obstacles that much be overcome in order to prepare a perfect end product. Hearing a student orchestra struggle through the Debussy revealed the intricacies of the composition and the challenges posed by those details.

After all this abridged reviewing, I can’t help but come back to the strangeness of the ensemble. Last semester, all I had were rave reviews for the Student Symphony. Perttu and Richard Giarusso ’00 led the orchestra in a well-planned, well-prepared concert of English music from the 18th through 20th centuries. This Saturday’s concert did not impress me much at all. It’s extremely encouraging to see musicians from all over the campus coming together for no reward other than that of the music they produce, yet the music they produce often makes me wonder if those musicians care about what they’re playing.

We boast two orchestras at a school of 2000 students, so how can I possibly complain? And yet it seems that this ensemble could be so much more, and that they are just treading water half of the time. The Student Symphony is the wild card in the Williams music scene, and maybe it’s best just to leave it at that, throw up your hands, and say “good job.”

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