Symph Winds gives shoutout to Shakespeare

Symphonic Winds gave a modern sound to a literary giant on Saturday night with their final performance of the year, Yo Shakespeare!, orchestrated by music director Steven Bodner. A wide range of contemporary pieces vaguely related to Shakespeare, including two composed by Williams students, created an excitingly varied concert.

The first piece, Lukas Foss’ Elegy, the second of four movements in his Concerto for Band, was the anomaly to the Shakespeare theme. The group chose to perform this piece to honor Foss, who died on Feb. 1. Foss’ influence upon American music during the last century has been considered comparable to that of music greats Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Elegy, the second-to-last piece Foss composed, began with low, broad tones, which did not lend to the sorrowful tone I expected, but instead to a more contemplative sound. Notes from higher octaves gradually permeated the room, leading to a call and response between high and low octaves. In the middle section, differing beats, tempos and pitches layered upon one another to create a conversation that included more and more details as it progressed. The piece finished on a more reflective tone, but the moments that made me think of an elegy were, surprisingly, the most animated ones, which brought to the surface the joy found in remembering a loved one’s life rather than his or her death.

A dramatic start to a fast-paced second piece, Wedding Dances from the opera Bandanna by Daron Aric Hagen broke the reflective mindset of the previous performance. Bandanna, a dramatic story of love and betrayal, draws aspects of Shakespeare’s Othello into a 1968 small-town setting. Each of nine short sections in Wedding Dances brought forth a different type of energy, as the dances thematically exposed the nuances of several opera character’s relationships in the context of a wedding. My favorite dance was the sixth, which began slowly but grew into a clear, deep, passionate melody echoed by higher notes while simultaneously creating darker, more serious undertones.

The stage lights then went out and a small light on the balcony behind the audience’s viewing range lit up. Bodner stood, a black outline of a back far above the audience, and raised his arms to conduct eight cellos, which we could not see. The piece, Fratres for eight cellos by Arvo Part, began with mysterious, soft sounds, not overtly cacophonous but not quite smooth, like sandpaper scratching skin. Not being able to see the musicians added to the hazy, enigmatic tone, which began to form a simple minor key melody. As the piece progressed, the melody gained its footing, and it became louder and smoother. A short interlude of quiet hums and beats marked each transition; the melody returned each time, seemingly braver. After several such transitions, the minor key notes seemed to catch their breath and sing atop a bed of pulsating lower tones, chillingly beautiful. At first I was unsure about this piece, but the roughness of the beginning and the heartbeat breaks between swells served well to contrast the bursts of color brought forth by the melody. They highlighted the beauty, and even emotional complexity, of its compositional simplicity.

Following Reynaldo Hahn’s Lesquercade and Romanesque came a capstone of the performance: the premiere of Heart’s Place, composed by Sarah Riskind ’09 as her senior thesis. Riskind incorporated her own interests and experiences to express relationships between women’s freedom and sacred and secular love. The three movements are incredibly different, employing different languages for vocal lyrics, sung by soprano Kerry Ryer-Parke, vocal instructor, which Riskind wrote herself. The first movement, Union with Christ, praises the sacred marriage of nuns and condemns the secular one of men and women. The second, In Prison, illustrates the pains of an adolescent girl confined to a convent under a vow of chastity, and the third, Pomegranates in Flower, integrates secular love songs into the framing of an Old Testament religious text. Not only was Riskind’s piece immensely impressive in terms of its musicality, but the intricate symbolism and beautiful lyrics exposed her great commitment and talent.

The next piece, Yo Shakespeare by Michael Gordon, brought a completely different type of music to the stage. Electric guitars and synthesizers entered the mix and Gordon layered three disparate rhythms, tones, volumes and pitches upon one another, creating a textured piece comparable to a 3-D collage. Each rhythm constantly changed, in turn shaping the other two; the three affected each other even without direct address. Gordon intended to mimic rock music by throwing these disparate elements together; in my opinion, he pulled it off and created an extremely unique piece that was probably quite difficult to conduct.
A familiar melody returned later in the program with Arvo Part’s Fratres for wind octet and percussion. This version, however, did not have the same goosebump-rising effect, and its placement after Yo Shakespeare seemed an abrupt transition that did not, for me, engender the most effective type of contrast. Also performed out of the audience’s sight, this piece began with a strong, high flute, setting a more confident tone. The melodic swells echoed those of the cellos, but perhaps the lack of contrast with a soft, ambiguous beginning mitigated my reaction.

Another student premiere, when I lived in permanence, composed by Brian Simalchik ’10, was equally impressive but drastically different from Heart’s Place. The piece began with a sole suspended note by cellist Katie Palmer ’10, joined next by Mimi Lou ’09 and then by Betsy Ribble ’09. The suspension created a surreal yet anxious atmosphere; this tension continued throughout the piece, as the cellists were joined by bursting drum rolls and severe, increasingly rapid call-and-response shouts between trumpets and lower woodwinds. The piece ended with the same agitated pitches as in the beginning, which Simalchik employed to express how fear and anxiety paralyze a person’s ability to change.

The concert ended with the most Shakespeare-related piece, Martin Mailman’s for precious friends hid in death’s dateless night. The piece consists of three movements, each inspired by one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, traveling through the lapses and relapses of nostalgia, love and death, a dramatic journey expressed through percussion solos, fierce sequences of high notes and periods of near silence broken by the two.

Ending with this piece seemed fitting, considering the concert’s Shakespearean theme, and the three swells of crashing symbols created a finale dramatic enough to mimic the master of drama himself.