Jiménez, Ambar Conduct Opening Oberlin Orchestra Concert


Photo by Hugh Newcomb, Photo Editor

President Carmen Twillie Ambar made her conducting debut last Friday night, leading the Oberlin Orchestra in Johann Strauss’ Radetzky March.

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

To new listeners, orchestral music can seem foreboding, with complex elements and a long history. But last Friday night, the Oberlin Orchestra invited the community to “So may I introduce to you,” an informal, celebratory show to open the year of orchestral performances and demonstrate that orchestral music is for everyone, not just those in the know.

An hour before the event’s posted start time, the plaza outside Finney Chapel was already packed with people who had come to enjoy complimentary donuts and cider on offer, or listen to the large trombone choir that performed for the crowd of early-comers.

The moment the audience walked into Finney Chapel and saw the orchestra making their final preparations on stage, it was clear that this event was much less formal than an ordinary orchestra concert — the performers were in their street clothes, and conductor Raphael Jiménez was chatting with the musicians, at one point even taking a selfie with the orchestra.

“I loved the energy before the concert,” Jiménez said. “It was a festive environment. And that was the idea — to have a kick-off performance to the year, so everybody gets into performance mode. … The idea was to make it … light, fun, and casual, [and to] create an energetic, interactive event to attract more people to our performances.”

The event was emceed by Conservatory seniors Jesse Mashburn and Cory McGee, the hosts of “Making CONnections,” the official WOBC radio station for Conservatory news and music. Throughout the event, they spotlighted various musicians on stage, teasing one for their ostentatious shirt and asking another to demonstrate a piccolo trill.

“Maestro Jiménez wanted to talk about the orchestra itself, but he didn’t want it to be like a lecture,” Mashburn said. “We’re college students — that’s all we get while we’re here. He wanted to make it a little more interactive, and then wanted to bring us on to cut up the lecture parts. … He couldn’t just walk around and give little comments about the orchestra players that we know because he’s their professor, but it’s perfectly fine for me to [do that].”

The event wasn’t quite a concert; over the 45-minute show, the orchestra played relatively little music. Instead, the time was mostly used to break down one of the two works on the programme — Sensemayá, by Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas — into its component parts, introducing musical novices in the audience to how a piece of music is built. This piece was an especially interesting choice because, as Jiménez explained, the music is closely based on a poem of the same name, by Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén. Jiménez led the audience in rhythm exercises, drawing out patterns that would later appear in the composition. He read the poem aloud, highlighting the musicality and repetitions of the phrases. Then, he showed how these components appear in the overall piece by having individual instruments or sections play small segments. Finally, the orchestra played Sensemayá through. Jiménez conducted as much for the audience’s benefit as for the orchestra’s, deliberately pointing out the moments where familiar rhythms and melodies entered the piece.

Although a great deal of the evening focused on education, Jiménez made clear that one does not need to have extensive background knowledge to enjoy and appreciate orchestral music.

“I think it’s important for people to validate their reaction to music,” he said. “When they listen to music, whatever they are feeling at that point is absolutely valid, and they need to embrace that. … Of course, the more familiar you are with a piece, the more you know about it will enrich your experience somehow, but that doesn’t make it better. It’s just a different kind of experience. We need to make very clear that people should just come, sit, and enjoy. Period.”

Conservatory senior Alexandra Sophocleus, who played the viola, was pleased with how the event reached out to a wider audience with a more detailed exploration of how an orchestra works and how this particular piece was shaped.

“A lot of orchestras will do these kinds of concerts for children,” she said. “There are a lot of pieces that are written by famous composers that are concusive to showing children the instruments. But I thought it was really great that Professor Jiménez took the idea of educating people about classical music to an older level. I actually had students come up to me after the concert and tell me: ‘I loved the analytical part. … I loved understanding the piece and knowing what to listen for.’”

The crowd size spoke to the appeal of the format; by the time the concert started, almost every seat in Finney Chapel was filled with both college and community members, and the audience willingly and energetically participated in every component of the event throughout the evening.

“I’ve never seen that many people in Finney Chapel,” Mashburn said. “It’s nice to see the fruits of [musicians’] labor be appreciated by that many people. That was [wild], and I hope to see as many people at every orchestra concert, choir concert, jazz ensemble — all of it.”

Beyond the pedagogical value, Jiménez was also inspired to choose Sensemayá for this concert because of a personal connection with the piece.

“I have been in love with this piece for a long, long time – it’s one of my favorites,” Jiménez said. “It happens to be a piece that was originated by two great Latin American artists: a Cuban poet and a Mexican composer. I grew up in Venezuela, so I feel that we are showing the world the great achievements of these people. And it’s not the typical stereotype of what Latin music is. This is not the tango, rumba, bolero that everybody associates with Latin music. This is just great modern orchestral music [that] happens to be based on a Latin American poem, which happens to be based on a sort of ritual … that originated in Afro-Cuban religion.”

After the performance of Sensemayá came the moment that many in the audience had been waiting for — new President Carmen Twillie Ambar’s conducting debut. After taking the stage to thunderous applause, she ended the evening by leading the orchestra in Johann Strauss’ Radetzky March.

“It was exciting to be up there with the orchestra,” Ambar said. “I’ve never done that before. It’s so different to be in the midst of the music in that way. But also to watch the artistry of the various instruments up close as the students had that sort of intense look of trying to accomplish this piece and to be part of the music in terms of curating it, [or] orchestrating it, was just exhilarating. I had a blast.”

Ambar and the orchestra received a well-deserved standing ovation for the march. Not only was it performed with the predictably excellent technical precision that one expects from Oberlin Conservatory musicians, but there was a clear joy to the performance as well. To Jiménez, Ambar’s success as a conductor bodes well for her leadership of Oberlin in general.

“A leader is a leader,” he said. “It’s very important, when you lead, to be determined and to have an absolute conviction in what you’re doing. No hesitation whatsoever. … She demonstrated that she is a great leader.”

Ambar hoped that this concert would spread the message of what the Conservatory does to a wider audience, and that people who enjoyed “So may I introduce to you” will keep coming back for more.

“There is a way for all of us to have our soul nurtured by music,” she said. “By coming to the various concerts, it is an opportunity for your spirit to be moved. You shouldn’t miss that opportunity. You shouldn’t think of it as ‘just another thing on the list,’ because this opportunity doesn’t last forever – to experience … a campus that’s the most musical campus in the country.”