Taylor does it all; Symphony tackles the Fifth

Saturday night, the Student Symphony performed what was possibly its most ambitious program ever, tackling two contemporary works and the ubiquitous warhorse of our times, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It’s exciting to see this group challenging itself – Dan Perttu ’01, director of the orchestra, said in the notes that “the demand among the orchestra to play the entire [Beethoven symphony] rose to a palpable level.” Rather than rest on its laurels, the orchestra demanded to face down an intimidating task.

Challenges often produce mixed results, and this was certainly not the most polished performance of the Symphony that any listener in the audience had heard. But that hardly begins to tell the story of this experience. In retrospect, this was one of the more exciting and memorable performances of the Symphony that I can remember, if only because of the sense of challenge that loomed over the entire performance. Playing the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth must be a daunting experience for any performer; nothing is more ingrained in our musical consciousness, with the possible exceptions of the National Anthem and that song about the blue guy.

To hear the Berlin Philharmonic play this work is to hear an interpretation, a new look at an old friend, one might say. But to hear the Student Symphony play it is to hear the struggle that Beethoven intended, the difficulty in managing the tightly-packed emotions that must have been so fresh in 1809 but that is all too easily missed today with the boons of increased technical facility and an expansion of our musical language. The Student Symphony struggled at times to get through this long orchestral journey, providing beautiful sounds at times and seeming lost at others, but ultimately, isn’t that what this work is about? When Perttu started jumping on stage at the end, the audience and the performers were with him, having taken the same road to ultimate triumph as had he and the orchestra.

The Beethoven closed the program, and appropriately so. The first half saw Andrea Mazzariello ’00 conduct Christopher Rouse’s Iscariot and Kenric Taylor’s ’00 The Kroger Revolution. The Rouse was full of drama and intensity, building deliberately to climaxes and snaking through rhythmically difficult solo and small ensemble passages. Unfortunately, there were no percussionists available to play one of the climactic moments in the piece, an especially difficult omission given the description of this work as “autobiographical” by Rouse, a former drummer. The Symphony came through, responding to Mazzairello’s love for this music; indeed, it seems to have been a source of inspiration for his own orchestral writing. Iscariot is a bit full of itself, with its extremely grand gestures in a limited time-scale. But these gestures are exciting, too, and the Symphony delivered them with aplomb.

The Kroger Revolution is quite a different musical world than Iscariot. Taylor seems to be telling a story, one that the audience is somehow supposed to understand. With the exception of the Thomas Mann readers in attendance, the title provided no help and the music was forced to stand alone. The Kroger Revolution is full of very nice material, and there are a lot of comfortable resting places throughout the work, places where a listener is happy to be residing. But I felt lost in the motion from one spot to the next, and afterwards, I didn’t have any sense of where I had been taken. It’s great to add an element of mystery to an event, musical or otherwise, but when the event only adds to the mystery, without any hint of resolution, an audience member can feel frustrated.

The last thing I want to do is imply a dislike of Taylor’s music, and his Senior Recital in composition and voice, presented in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall on Sunday afternoon, gives me an opportunity to be more complementary. The first half of the program was devoted almost entirely to his own compositions, beginning with a gorgeous excerpt from his song cycle, “The Summer’s Night.” Brian Katz ’03 maintained a beautifully calm feel to The Starry Sky, with text by Yves Bonnefoy. Taylor is a vocal composer, first and foremost, and this setting was extremely appropriate and tasteful.

Next on the program was Taylor’s most complete and successful instrumental work to date, Aerial, for two clarinets, bass clarinet and two flutes. The wind instruments rise and float about, creating a variety of serene textures. The air is fluid, as are those things which are carried on the air’s currents, and Aerial is a convincing aural version of that sensation. This performance felt a bit too conducted at times, especially when solo instruments seemed to be begging for room to float on their own. But ultimately, I was glad to have the chance to hear this lovely work again.

The oldest work on the program, My Mother’s Hands, was next on the program. I remember seeing the premiere of this work, and it had a certain freshness to it in 1997 that seemed be lost with the passage of time and the maturation of Taylor’s style. Compared to The Starry Sky, this song seemed quaint and underdeveloped. A performance in which baritone Paul La Rosa ’02 was drowned out by the ensemble didn’t help matters. While it’s nice to hear old works brought back, it’s also nice to use them as barometers for seeing how far a composer has come, and it’s easy to recognize that Taylor is a different composer now than he was three years ago.

Further evidence of this was provided in Taylor’s Lord, make me an instrument, sung by the Williams Chanson Singers, conducted by Bradley Wells. Taylor’s style felt perfectly matched with this small, tight ensemble of excellent singers, and the song itself was well-crafted and moving. The original version of this song, as performed last year, was much more experimental and difficult; the sound-world that Taylor returned to here is one in which he is more comfortable, and the result is a piece that came across wonderfully.

The first half ended with a powerful performance of Mussorgsky’s Pesni i pliaski smerti, showing off Taylor’s vocal abilities. Following the intermission, the audience settled in for a staged performance of Gustav Holst’s short opera, Savitri. Besides being a composer, singer and trombonist, Taylor is an expert on Gustav Holst, and can frequently be heard complaining about the lack of performances of his music on this campus and elsewhere. Taking matters into his own hands, he staged this opera, and it can only be called a great success. The mystical story of a woman’s struggle with Death for her husband’s life was carried on the backs of the two lead performers, soprano Kerry Ryer-Parke, in the title role, and Taylor, as Death. Her clear, precise tone was the glue that held the production together, singing Holst’s beautiful modal lines.

Taylor was an imposing Death, standing coldly on the edges of the stage and booming his lines throughout the hall. The third role, that of Savitri’s husband Satyavan, was performed by tenor Guy Rauscher. While Rauscher sang most of the lines ably, his struggles with memory and lack of stage presence were quite distracting. Nevertheless, the three soloists, accompanied sensitively by Michele Kemmerling ’01 and a group of unseen singers, brought this beautiful work across in a convincing and professional manner. Taylor should be commended for bringing this to the ears of Williams students, and for his outstanding career as a musician on this campus.