Concert showcases distinctive conducting

The Williams Student Symphony’s fall/winter concert took place Dec. 1 in Chapin Hall, with director Jonathan Salter ’02 and guest conductor Benjamin Birney ’02. The concert consisted of Romantic and Modern works, including one work written by Birney.

The concert started off with the piece Snow Maiden Suite, “Dance of the Buffoons” from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden (1882). This piece commenced with the strings, followed by a build-up of the brass and percussion instruments. The piece is in a moderated tempo with a duple meter, creating the effect of a passing parade. It creates a distinct impression of the presence of several characters, each represented by different instruments and different melodies.

Regardless of whether or not the listener knows of its operatic provenance, the power of the music conveys the differing personalities of each character. The music is almost descriptive, suggestive of images and colors, and shows masterful orchestration. The piece culminates with the different characters merging into one highly polyphonic piece of music, symbolizing the end of the parade.

The next piece, Charles Ives’ “Variations on America,” was appropriately chosen, taking into account recent events. Ives is known for his use of typically American themes in his music. “Variations on America” presents a survey of different American and classical music styles of composition, applied to popular patriotic “America” tunes. The piece uses the form of theme and variations.

Some of the variations resembled very classical styles of composition. Others, however, used more diverse styles. One made it seem as if a big band were playing and another sounded like a rendition one might hear at a fair. In the variations, different sections of the orchestra were accentuated, as the emphasis shifted from the string sections to the percussion or the winds.

The variations were comprised of changes in the range in which the tune was played, or even the length of notes, with some variations utilizing a number of sixteenth notes. The eclectic nature of the piece is characteristic of this 20th century composer, whose style deliberately superimposes sources and genres to produce a completely modern sound.

The following work was Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll.” The piece, full of dissonance, opens with a slow motive. The main melodic line is initially played by the string section, and is soon transferred to the winds and later returned to the strings. The music follows a gentle, intimate course; yet, watching the performance, the disproportionate energy exuded by Salter became distracting.

This discrepancy between the emphatic gesture and the absence of corresponding crescendos resulted in a certain frustration in the spectator. The audience, justifiably or not, was led to expect great crescendos, or at least a heightened dynamic level, which was never realized. It is also possible that part of the problem is that Wagner composed for large orchestras, therefore making it difficult to achieve the necessarylevel of momentum with the comparatively small student symphony.

The last two pieces were acomposition by Birney, and Gioacchino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” Birney’s work is a symphonic poem, but the poem on which it was based was not revealed. At times this piece had a slightly haunting Eastern melody. There were great crescendos throughout the piece, heightening its emotion. The actual instrumentation was highly brass-focused. The orchestration was dense at times, and therefore it too might be better played by a larger orchestra.

The final piece was an energetic way to end the evening’s performance. It was a typical example of a romantic work, with its big swells and dynamic changes. The orchestra responded appropriately to the conductor’s motions when it came to the large crescendos. Though the piece played did not have the original cello solo at the beginning, its style was impressively performed.

The concert was remarkable for a completely student-run event. However, in my opinion, it was lacking a theme or a logical sequence for the works chosen. The two conductors had very distinctive styles. I found Salter’s movements to be too energetic in relation to the resulting rendition; Birney’s conducting seemed more decisive and focused. Nonetheless, the concert was a great opportunity to showcase the talents of many Williams students.

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