Next week, the Oberlin Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra, led by conductor Raphael Jiménez, will present two eclectic programs. The Oberlin Chamber Orchestra will perform this Tuesday, May 2, at 8 p.m. in Finney Chapel, and the Oberlin Orchestra will follow the next day at the same time and place.
The Chamber Orchestra concert will begin with Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, conducted by double-degree senior Maurice Cohn. The title of the piece is from a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé, which Debussy sought to represent in musical form. Like other pieces by Debussy, the Prélude can sound vague and far-off, but it requires a high degree of technical precision to render its gestures faithfully.
“It’s a very challenging piece for the orchestra and a very challenging piece for the conductor as well,” Jiménez said.
2016 Senior Concerto Competition winner Amber Monroe will then perform Ricky Ian Gordon’s and flowers pick themselves, a song cycle consisting of text from five poems by E. E. Cummings. Jiménez himself originally premiered and recorded the piece in 2005, and recommended it to Monroe more than a year ago. Monroe says she quickly found a personal connection to the songs.
“I had never heard of it before, so I … found a recording,” Monroe said. “The first words in the first movement were ‘i thank You God for most this amazing day,’ and me being a spiritual person, that drew me in immediately.”
Cummings’ poetry is well known for its unusual word order, and the cycle explores the varied emotions each poem evokes. The poems set are “[i thank You God for most this amazing],” “[why did you go],” “[Thy fingers make early flowers],” “[anyone lived in a pretty how town],” and “[who knows if the moon’s].”
“The text is beautiful for all the songs and we have a phenomenal voice singing,” Jiménez said.
The Chamber Orchestra concert will close with a performance of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s No. 2 in D major Op. 36. Like most of Beethoven’s early works, the piece is less frequently programmed than later symphonies like the fifth and ninth and is full of life and energy, bombastic in a way that is characteristically Beethoven.
The Oberlin Orchestra concert, by comparison, is a tour de force of 20th-century masterpieces. Starting off the program is Sergei Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante, or Symphony Concerto, for cello and orchestra, with the solo part performed by Conservatory senior Aaron Wolff.
The piece is a revised version of Prokofiev’s earlier Op. 58 Cello Concerto, which flopped at its premiere. Upon meeting the cello virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich, 22 years old at the time, Prokofiev made extensive revisions to create the Sinfonia Concertante in its present form. The original Cello Concerto was written during a very successful period of Prokofiev’s career, around the same time as Peter and the Wolf and Romeo and Juliet, and the Sinfonia carries over some of its exuberance.
“It keeps you engaged at all times with this peculiar Prokofiev sound,” Jiménez said. “It’s something we’re enjoying a lot.”
“I think there’s a lot of humor that actually goes overlooked,” Wolff added, pointing to “flirtatious” moments in the third movement as instances of underappreciated levity.
By the time Prokofiev reworked the piece, however, he had fallen out of the favor of the Soviet arts authority and was under official censure. Much of the material added to the Sinfonia is very somber in nature.
The piece is legendarily challenging. For many years after its composition it was considered practically unplayable, despite Rostropovich’s successful performances. Even more than 60 years after its first performance, the Sinfonia Concertante is still rarely performed on account of its difficulty.
“Just getting it all on [my] fingers took me almost a year. I’ve been working on it for almost two years,” Wolff said.
In addition to requiring a high degree of technical virtuosity, the Sinfonia is also very physically demanding. The piece is over 40 minutes long, and the cello soloist is almost always playing. Due to the size of the cello, playing such difficult music for such a stretch is a real feat of athleticism. The required physical demands make it difficult to rehearse the entire piece continuously.
However, Wolff has the technique and the athleticism in his grasp. He says playing 21st-century music at Oberlin has allowed him to approach the Sinfonia’s demands. The contemporary music he plays frequently asks for uncommon and sometimes novel techniques. Being able to execute them requires a different kind of approach than most music from centuries past.
The Orchestra’s program will close with Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Where Prokofiev requests virtuosity from the cellist, Bartók demands it from every member of the orchestra.
“It’s a concerto for the orchestra, so we all have a lot to do,” Jiménez said. “Everyone in the orchestra has a prominent role at some point. It’s a very difficult piece for the ensemble.”
The Concerto was commissioned by Boston Symphony conductor and bass virtuoso Serge Koussevitzky. Bartók was in failing health at the time, and the commission spurred him to several other compositions that he otherwise may not have completed before his death.
Jiménez drew a parallel between Bartók’s life and the present day. Bartók opposed Hungary’s alliance with Nazi Germany, and he fled to the United States after the outbreak of World War II.
“We opened the doors to Bartók,” Jiménez said. “We gave him the opportunity to come to this country.”
Jiménez lamented the United States’ current response to the international refugee crisis, and the number of people who may lose their lives without asylum. To him, Concerto for Orchestra exemplifies the potential of every refugee; potential that is lost when refugees are turned away from our shores.
“When you think about what’s happening nowadays, think about how many … works of art will not be painted, pieces of music will not be written,” Jiménez said.