One night after an impressive performance by the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble at DiMenna Center, the Oberlin Orchestra delivered a knockout punch with a Carnegie Hall concert on Saturday, January 19, 2013. With many American orchestras in steady decline, we have to ask: why people just don’t seem to like orchestras as much as they used to? It’s easy to conjure images of a 106 year old audience member noisily opening a cough drop, a vast array of empty seats, the jaded face of a long-tenured violist shaping into a yawning “O.” Orchestra is a dying art form, and we might as well pull the plug, right? Well, maybe not. Anyone who was lucky enough to get a ticket to the Oberlin Orchestra’s sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall would have a hard time maintaining this view. The vitality of the Oberlin students, led by enthusiastic maestro Raphael Jimenez, earned them a standing ovation from an audience that didn’t know quite what had hit them.
The program featured the New York premiere of Iscariot by composer Christopher Rouse, a 1971 graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory. Rouse won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Trombone Concerto and the 2002 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Composition for his Concert de Gaudi. He is a member of the composition faculty at The Juilliard School and is the current Composer In Residence for the New York Philharmonic. Iscariot, a 1989 commission by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, is an epic and tightly constructed work. The orchestration is quite interesting, alternating between groups of instruments to create a large scale dialogue of strophes and antistrophes. Although the piece was largely characterized by high energy, roaring sections, my favorite moments came in its quieter passages. The strings achieved a haunting peacefulness in a section of passed-off harmonics, and the wind section featured two duets (first between oboe and English horn, then flute and clarinet) that were exquisitely intimate and beautifully played.
The orchestra offered a riveting rendition of Ravel’s La Valse, a piece that was originally conceived as a tribute to the great Viennese tradition. Ravel’s work on the piece was interrupted by military duties during World War I, but he came back to it after his service with a new perspective. He changed the title of the piece from the original “Vien” because of his discomfort as a French patriot in naming it for an enemy capital. With this in mind, many have described the piece as symbolic of the destruction of European civilization in the aftermath of the war, although Ravel denied the accuracy of this interpretation. Regardless of Ravel’s intent, the piece certainly has an arc that builds to a bombastic climax, lilting and swelling throughout with the typical Viennese sense of time. The low strings begin, barely audibly, and it slowly builds from there. The Oberlin ensemble featured lyrical and nuanced solos in the winds, and a roaring timpani that drove and supported a booming, energetic finish.
Also on the program was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, K. 467, played effortlessly by Oberlin alumnus Jeremy Denk. There was something heartwarming about watching Denk perform with students from his alma mater; it was immediately clear that he was having a great time, throwing off the runs in the Allegro movements, and savoring all of the juicy dissonance in the Andante. The orchestra demonstrated its versatility, especially in the strings sections, which achieved a lightness and clarity that was wholly unlike the late Romantic Viennese style that came before it.
The evening ended on a high note with Stravinsky’s suite from his ballet The Firebird. This piece featured the talents of virtually every principal and solo player in the orchestra, with particularly outstanding performances from clarinetist Zachary Good, flutist Helen Park, and bassoonist Sean Gordon. Concert master Wyatt Underhill and principal cellist Alexa Ciciretti delivered tender and emotive solos and did a fantastic job of leading the string section. Sean Dowgray excelled on the timpani, proving (at least to this critic) that whoever said the best timpanists are invisible was wrong. All together, the orchestra blended wonderfully, and produced the contrasting characters that are so vitally important in a work like The Firebird. The tonality of the piece seemed somehow to relate back to the Ravel – perhaps it was something about the close harmonies and balletic gestures – creating a continuity within the diverse programming. The triumphant finale brought the musicians and audience alike to the edge of their seats, the final chords giving way to explosive applause and a standing ovation that seemed to last for the better part of ten minutes. I counted Maestro Jimenez walking out for four separate bows, beaming at his victorious band of students the entire time.
It really is rare to feel so elated after an orchestra concert, and I don’t think it’s just pride in my alma mater that inspired that feeling. There’s something about seeing a group of talented young individuals come together and work towards such an honest goal – to produce beautiful music – that is really moving. The Oberlin Orchestra might not be as seasoned or polished as some of the orchestras that pass through this notorious hall, but I can’t help but think that they have something the New York Philharmonic does not. Perhaps it’s that glisten in their eyes, which are still capable of reflecting the gilded ceiling above them, or the knowledge that they won’t be back on that stage regularly – at least not for a little while – so they’d better give it their all. Whatever it is, it works for them. And with the ticket sales and reception they earned, let’s hope they are back in Carnegie Hall again soon.
NYC-based violinist Marina Kifferstein, a graduate of Oberlin College and Conservatory, is an active performer and is pursuing a Masters degree in Contemporary Performance at the Manhattan School of Music.