So How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Tarik O’Regan: Triptych
Igor Stravinsky: Les Noces
Elizabeth Ogonek: All These Lighted Things
Claude Debussy: La Mer
Katherine Lerner Lee (Soprano), Perri di Christina (Mezzo-Soprano), Nicholas Music (Tenor), Kyle Miller (Baritone)
Oberlin College Choir, Gregory Ristow (Director), Oberlin Orchestra, Raphael Jiménez (Director)
R. Jiménez (© Oberlin College Archives)
I can’t deny that I am a sucker when comes to student orchestras appearing on major concert stages. Especially if/when the students come from such a distinguished music school as the Oberlin College, one of the oldest music schools in the country. Recently, Oberlin students appeared at Carnegie Hall, though a group of them hailing from the jazz program had performed a few days earlier at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. It is almost invariably that the vitality, enthusiasm and energy of the young forces compensate for the perfection that a seasoned orchestra may provide: it is almost as likely that many of the young musicians we see on stage in just a few short years will join the best ensembles. However, I am afraid that by the time they come back to those most prestigious halls, such as Carnegie Hall, as members of those world famous orchestras, they will be a little more jaded, cynical and worn out, and the enthusiasm that greets them from the audience has none of the taste of what we heard last Saturday, when they played for their colleagues, families and faculty members who came there especially from far away to hear and cheer them at Carnegie.
We were greeted by the Oberlin College President, Ms. Carmen Twillie Ambar, who stressed the long period of preparation that preceded their visit and the sense of celebration. I was especially impressed that her speech was devoid of any traditional mention of the “difficult times” that we witness today. Nowadays it is almost de rigueur, especially from members of academia. They really suffer in colleges and universities, don’t they? Yet the first work on the program, the Triptych by Tarik O’Regan (b. 1978) was, in the words of the London born Algerian-Moroccan-U.K. bred and now residing in the U.S. composer, a response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Luckily, the work skillfully scored for chorus, an occasional soloist and a large percussion section, visualizes a world free of such hostilities.
Furthermore the texts used for this attractive three-part composition come from authors/poets representing several cultures, faiths, and ethnicities, including a poetic prayer by one Rabbi Gittelson, which happened to have the most heart-wrenching music. On first hearing the three segments – “Threnody”, “As We Remember Them” and “From Heaven Distilled a Clemency” – sound refreshingly un-conflicted. It is, as O’Regan mentions “a journey that flows from the moment of death, to a time of remembrance, to a time after death”.
The forces used were the excellently prepared Oberlin College Choir and a group of fabulous percussion players, who congregated and switched around their marimbas, xylophones, bells and drums creating all sorts of shimmering effects, sometimes in an uncanny manner imitating the human voice. The solo soprano Risa Beddie, stepping out of the chorus, offered a short commentary with her innocent, child-like voice. The three parts segue from one to another without a pause and the poetic “As We Remember Them” lead to the African inspired, joyous, high-spirited last segment “From Heaven Distilled a Clemency” (incorporating a memorable drum solo). I don’t know how the original version for strings and choir sounds, but the revised version heard at Carnegie Hall was quite compelling and I bet Mr. O’Regan will get quite good mileage out of his work.
The next work on the program was a relatively rarely heard, though by no means unknown, score, Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Les Noces (The Wedding). In the final version Stravinsky decided for chorus and four soloists (depicting a several different characters in the Russian wedding story) to be accompanied not by an orchestra, but four pianos and a large percussion section. I have to admit that I was not aware of how complex a ritual a Russian wedding can be, and learned that only due to the excellent notes of Peter Laki, who remains one of the best musicologists and music commentators. The four vocal soloists were Katherine Lerner Lee, soprano, Perri di Christina, mezzo-soprano, Kyle Miller, baritone, and Nicolas Music, tenor, and for a short moment Evan Tiapula, who stepped out of the chorus. Of this group, I felt that the male soloists were more compelling. The female and male choirs were positioned on both sides of the stage with the four pianos clustered in the center. It is a very motoric, mostly relentless score where the four tableaux or scenes are performed without a pause and singing, as Mr. Laki notes, is syllabic – that is, there is only one note sung to each syllable of text. One had to admire the enormous effort it took for those young people to learn a 20 minute long score in an unfamiliar language and delivering, from what I could determine from the middle orchestra seats, an idiomatic performance with relatively clear, snappish diction. This performance was again lead by Mr. Gregory Ristow, who showed a full command and kept his forces nicely coordinated. I mentioned the motoric aspect of Les Noces, but in the concluding, quiet segment of Part II, when pianos and percussion have the field for themselves, the effect is just magical and has more ancient-Japanese than Russian flavor. One has to be grateful to the powers-that-be at Oberlin that they decided on a less hackneyed work for this Carnegie Hall concert: even in New York we don’t hear this music all that often!
In the second half of the concert we heard Oberlin’s symphony orchestra ably conducted by Raphael Jiménez. Here again the floor was first given to Oberlin’s faculty member Elizabeth Ogonek (b. 1989) and her score, another triptych of little dances for orchestra called All These Lighted Things. The names of each segment, as the new “tradition” dictates, were all in lower-case letters: 1st – exuberant, playful, bright, 2nd – gently drifting, hazy, 3rd – buoyant. Though in her own commentary Ms. Ogonek mentions her initial obsession with the mazurka – a dance that is a part of her Polish heritage and Chopin’s piano works in particular – at the end none of that materialized in her score. What we heard was a mildly atonal score, comfortably moored in the middle of the last century, very inventively orchestrated and excellently played by the very highly skilled young musicians. I was especially impressed by the foggy, indistinct, misty character of the second segment, though the third movement with its timpani led beginning and later echoes of the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra was also most impressive. It is worth mentioning that this score was commissioned by no less famous ensemble that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its premiere in September of 2017 was conducted by the legendary Maestro Riccardo Muti.
Maestro Jiménez saved the most famous score of the evening for the last piece in the program: it was yet another triptych, the “symphonic sketches” La Mer by Claude Debussy, and it was also a work that tested the strengths of the youthful ensemble. Can one realistically expect the precision and sensuality of great orchestras from conservatory students? Even if the answer is “not really”, the daunting score was very well played and conducted with a sure hand. Maestro Jiménez didn’t even use the score, which proved how well he knows the music. There were some very beautifully played solo lines and sufficient tonal sheen to make it a most pleasurable musical experience. We can only guess how much time and effort was put into the preparation of this event at Carnegie Hall, but all that work paid off and the enthusiastic audience – after all they were applauding THEIR team! – was rewarded with wonderful, deeply felt and lovingly played repertory that was indeed worth hearing. As one of patrons was overheard saying “this is possibly the last time we will see some of those kids outside of leading American orchestras”.