Student Symphony strives for new heights

The Feb. 16 Student Symphony performance, directed by conductor Jonathan Salter ’02, was one of the most enjoyable instrumental concerts performed on campus all year. Salter’s choices consisted of a three-choir piece for brass by Gabrieli, an arrangement of Bach’s “Wachet Auf,” “Quiet City” by Copland and Dvorak’s “Slavonic Dances.” The inspired program was tactfully completed in less than forty minutes over the Winter Carnival weekend.

The stage was curiously set without instruments as the audience filtered in. Three brass quartets stood in the balconies of Chapin, arrayed for Gabrieli’s late Renaissance antiphonal composition. The compositional technique is designed to change the audience’s special focus, but with the specific construction of Chapin Hall, each quartet was also endowed with a unique timbre. The clear ringing sound of the ensemble was unfortunately marred several times by unpolished playing on the part of the trumpet section. The combined forces of the young conductor and the powerful trombones reunited the performers each time they began to waver. It is clear from the performance that guest conductor Catherine Kiwala ’04 had developed a specific artistic image of the piece in her head and had rehearsed it as such. Her actual conducting appeared reserved, but to be fair, her careful style was appropriate for the period and specific challenges of the piece.

Salter then took the stage for the remainder of the concert. I have very few specific memories of the Bach because I was so enraptured. The music was highly contrapuntal, giving each instrument something melodic to play in the context of the well-planned harmony. The ensemble rose to new heights in their treatment of each such melody. The arrangement had a few very strange string-woodwind doublings which Salter wisely downplayed, though this meant that the strong flute section often played disappointingly secondary roles. The brass became overtly boisterous as the piece reached its climax, which was extremely moving and compelling, although the brass’ exuberance resulted in the only blemishing note in the performance.

“Quiet City” featured two soloists, Jon Othmer ’02 on trumpet and Kate Alexander ’02 on the English horn. The piece is a shimmering twilight song, and this brilliant, peaceful mood was well conveyed by the pair. The conversation between Alexander’s long, low and sustained melodic questions and Othmer’s higher, Taps-like responses was captivating. They incorporated a few moments of enigmatic silence. However, I believe Salter could have handled these pauses more effectively. As Othmer reached his climactic note, the strings finally asserted themselves with a high, haunting melody in the cellos which was played extremely out of tune. This had an unsettling effect on the ensemble, which most adversely affected Othmer. Still, he recovered quickly, and the entire denouement of the piece was cleanly executed. The only thing I could have wished for would be a more exciting part for Ms. Alexander.

Salter showed how he has matured as a conductor with the final piece, the “Slavonic Dances.” The extended hemiola effects are extremely difficult to align, and Salter managed thoughtful pacing despite the percussion’s desire to play faster and the strings’ tendency to play slower. This light-hearted folk dance was a great piece to leave the audience with, though its appeal is similar to that of the Bach, whose artistry overshadowed it.

A few of the older concert-goers grumbled upon exiting that the program was too short, but many of the students were thrilled by the excitement contained in the brevity of the concert. Still, there is much to be said for captivating an audience in such a short amount of time, and Student Symphony certainly left me wanting more.

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