Cole to Lead Oberlin Orchestra in Classical, Contemporary Show

Ivan Aidun, Staff writer

A thought-provoking mixture of contemporary and classical music awaits listeners at the Oberlin Orchestra concert tomorrow in Finney Chapel. The program includes two pieces written in the last 20 years — the 2003 Violin Concerto by Israeli-American composer Shulamit Ran, performed by Concerto Competition winner and Conservatory senior Christa Cole, and a 2000 piece titled Rapture by Oberlin alumnus Christopher Rouse, OC ’71. In between these two is Totenfeier, an 1888 piece by Gustav Mahler that was later reorchestrated to become the first movement of his Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection.”

“It’s a challenging program,” said Director of Oberlin Orchestras Raphael Jiménez, who will conduct tomorrow evening. “I am very proud of the fact that our students … are looking outside the canon,” he said, referring to Cole’s decision to enter the concerto competition with the Ran piece. He added that the decision speaks to the character of the students in the Conservatory. “Our students are extremely curious, daring, and they think outside the box.”

That there is only one recording of the piece in existence may contribute to its relative obscurity.

“I actually had never heard the piece before about a year and a half ago, and then I played solo work by [Ran] on my junior recital,” Cole said.

Since coming to Oberlin, Cole has grown to enjoy performing contemporary classical music due to the how much she’s been exposed to in the Conservatory and the way contemporary classical can re-contextualize even renowned older works.

“Going back to the standard repertoire after having played contemporary music that you have to figure out … brings a new light to the older music as well,” Cole said, also noting that the piece is very accessible to listeners not used to contemporary music. “I think this piece does a really nice job of bridging that gap of accessibility without being a copycat of something else.”

The sense of freshness and discovery made the piece all the more alluring, especially given that music students often spend their time working almost exclusively on pieces picked out for them to further educational goals.

“When we decide what concerto to work on next, often your teacher will say, … ‘OK, this might be a good thing for you,’” Cole said. “But since I discovered the piece for myself … that’s made the process a lot more enjoyable.”

The expectations people have of canon works — concerti by the likes of Brahms or Sibelius — built up by decades of performance, can also be overwhelming.

“There’s sort of an expectation of how it should sound or [whether certain] musical decisions are OK or not,” Cole said. “I feel a lot more free to make my own interpretive decisions [with the Ran concerto]. … It’s liberating,” she said.

Given its dramatic changes of mood, the concerto has more than novelty to offer audiences tomorrow.

“The violin seems to have a very deep dialogue, a very serious dialogue, with the orchestra,” Jiménez said. “The piece goes from a very poetic beginning, through a stormy second movement … and [ends] in a sort of religious fashion.”

This progression from lyricism through turmoil and finally into bliss perfectly captures the arc of the entire program.

“All the pieces are somehow connected. There’s a lot of philosophical and emotional content,” Jiménez said.

After the concerto, the orchestra moves on to Mahler’s Totenfeier, a brooding piece from the late Romantic period that wrestles with questions of the meaningfulness of life and death.

“In Mahler’s words, the hero he created in his first symphony has died, and we have this funeral procession, and we are reflecting about the life of this individual,” said Jiménez.

The piece begins slowly and gradually accelerates, growing ever brighter until it attains a profound climax.

Rouse’s Rapture closes the program. “I was trying to find a way out of this very dramatic mood, and the piece by Christopher Rouse seemed to be perfect,” Jiménez said. “It has a sense of transcending the dark beginning into the light, so that was a way of getting out of the Mahler.”

In noting Rapture’s similarity to the last movement of Mahler’s second symphony and Ran’s Concerto, Jiménez underscored the importance of musicians making connections between similar pieces, even those written 100 years apart.

“[People have] always been dealing with the same questions of life and death. … [It’s just] the way of dealing with [these questions] and the way of expressing this struggle [that] has changed according to the culture of the moment,” Jiménez said.

It is for this reason that Jiménez believes mixing the classical canon with more contemporary works is important.

“We are performing new music, and we are also performing a lot of works from the canon. … It is part of the training we want to provide our students,” he said. Despite the challenge of presenting a program aimed at a variety of tastes and experiences, ultimately, as Cole recounts being told by Shulamit Ran, “the music does what the music does.”