As I took my seat in the MainStage of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance on Friday night, I felt like I had found a viable alternative to Mike Posner’s hyped-up Homecoming concert. My friend and I decided that we’d camp out at the very top seating level, in the very back of the theater, to get the full view of the spectacle put on by the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra, directed by Ronald Feldman, artist in residence. The pre-show atmosphere alone got me energized; I watched from above while huge numbers of people, whose dress ranged from t-shirts and jeans to suits and ties, milled about and buzzed excitedly before the lights went down. I trust that they, like me, were not disappointed. I can describe the orchestra’s performance on Friday as nothing less than dazzling.
The concert began with a “Meditation” for alto sax and string orchestra, dedicated to the memory of beloved music professor Steve Bodner, who unexpectedly passed away in January. Frank Bongiorno’s sad saxophone backed by even more mournful violins and hauntingly low cellos gripped the audience from the very start. As the piece progressed, it slowly gained in a sort of joyful velocity and careened towards an ultimately hopeful finale. The piece’s transition from tragic tones to notes of celebration made for an incredibly powerful tribute to a man certainly well-loved by his students and colleagues.
Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question” took the number two spot, with Thomas Bergeron playing the trumpet. Beginning in a place of almost unbearable sorrow, the trumpet and other horns certainly lent a sinister tone to the piece at its beginning. I could almost characterize it as a battle between the horn and string instruments. While the trumpets and horns offered darker music, the violins and violas struggled relentlessly to infuse the song with even a shred of happy feeling. Despite the best efforts of the string instruments, however, the singular trumpet always returned as an obviously “unanswered question,” even at the music’s end. It’s possible that most students of the College, always searching for subtler and more nuanced art, would find this part of the piece somewhat contrived. However, this did not take away from the beauty of the music.
The concerto for guitar and saxophone, “Sea of Stones,” consisted of seven movements of profoundly emotional opposite tones, played without pause. Inspired by Professor of Music David Kechley’s visit to Ryoanji, a temple in Kyoto, Japan, the concerto began with (and constantly returned to) a deep, banging drum that lent an almost tribal feeling. From there, the piece followed a tumultuous path. As the piece moved from primal drum-banging to wind instrument interludes to intense violins and violas to the unexpected clash of a gong, the audience could easily distinguish the seams of each separate part of the concerto. As its name might suggest, “Sea of Stones” sounded like an intentionally chaotic collection of warring musical pieces. As the concerto reached its conclusion, the threads of joy, chaos and tragedy all crashed into one another and were eventually lorded over by the ever-returning drum and the ultimately glad tones of the saxophone. Long after the end of the music and the beginning of the applause, the drummer’s hand, holding the stick, remained at the ready, prepared to strike the instrument yet again. Such was the tension of “Sea of Stones.”
John Adams, the composer of “My Father Knew Charles Ives,” describes the piece as “musical autobiography, an homage and encomium to a composer whose influence on me has been huge.” In writing this music, Adams chose to memorialize Ives and his father, both of whom found comfort in the philosophies of New England transcendentalists such as Thoreau. As the orchestra opened the second act with this music, the burgeoning sense of wonder at the piece’s beginning certainly called forth classic natural New England imagery. Though this wonder dissipated with the blaring of trumpets and trombones in the middle of the music, it soon returned, revived by those very same trumpets.
The concert’s closing number, Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from West Side Story, graciously allowed the audience to experience the heightened emotion of music when paired with a well-known story. Complete with snaps, police whistles and even the voices of the musicians themselves, the orchestra played through all of West Side Story, deftly capturing the roller-coaster ride of feeling. The orchestra beautifully portrayed the dramatic grace of youth, the infinite and innocent expectations of budding romance, the fright of dangerous street warfare and the tragedy of life cut short, tempered by never-ending stories of hopefulness for a brighter future. As in the play itself, the adagio of “Somewhere” returned time and again to remind the audience that all has not been lost.
Feldman deserves only the heartiest congratulations for another job very well done, as do 38 of our classmates in the orchestra. They played beautifully, infusing their music with a stunning amount of emotion. I had never attended a Berkshire Symphony Orchestra concert before Friday – I intend on seeing many more.