Oberlin Orchestra and Choir Prepare for U.N. Gala Concert at Carnegie Hall


Photo by Erin Koo, Photo Editor

The Oberlin Orchestra and Choir rehearsed in Finney Chapel Wednesday night.

The Conservatory of Music Orchestra and Choir will be performing at Carnegie Hall in New York City on Friday, Dec. 2. The concert is a closed event for members of the United Nations General Assembly, but members of the Oberlin community can experience the full program on Tuesday, Nov. 29 in Finney Chapel. This concert will serve as the inaugural event in the recently announced partnership between Oberlin College and Conservatory, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, and the Global Foundation for the Performing Arts. 

This is the first time a non-professional orchestra has been featured at the U.N. Gala Concert since its pilot in 1949. For Director of Oberlin Orchestras Raphael Jiménez, the opportunity for Oberlin Conservatory students to perform on this occasion is an incredible honor. 

“During the pandemic, what happened is [the U.N.] couldn’t have a full orchestra concert, but more important than that is this gala has been traditionally played by a professional orchestra,” Jiménez said. “We feel honored that they are inviting us to perform at this event. It’s an exciting challenge for a conservatory of music to present this program at this particular venue.” 

Given the historic nature of this concert, the U.N. requested that the Conservatory include Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in the program, a piece that was also played at the first U.N. Gala Concert. Jiménez spoke about the value of performing the piece for the U.N. and the challenges of assembling this program.

“One of the biggest, most important pieces in the repertoire is the monumental Beethoven Symphony No. 9. This is a piece that is special in so many ways, especially because it brings a message of brotherhood and joy, and we are bringing this message literally to the entire planet, at the United Nations,”  Jiménez said.
“So it’s a phenomenal opportunity for the orchestra and for the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Very often, this Symphony No. 9 is performed by itself in a concert, occasionally with a short opener. Here, we are playing “Fanfare on Amazing Grace” by Adolphus Hailstork, followed by Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninoff, and then the entire symphony. So it’s a long and challenging program.”

Beethoven’s No. 9 is also the only piece in the program that requires a chorus. The Nov. 29 Finney concert will have a 150-person choir, bringing together community members, Conservatory faculty, students from College Choir, Musical Union, and Gospel Choir, in addition to Voice majors who are no longer required to perform in ensembles. The main U.N. Gala Concert will have a smaller chorus, comprising 79 student singers plus a handful of New York-based Oberlin alumni for an approximate total of 100 singers. 

Due to the number of ensembles collaborating on this performance, Visiting Director of Vocal Ensembles Ben Johns mentioned that some groups, like the Musical Union, have had less time to rehearse than would be ideal. Despite that, he believes the chorus is on track to be concert-ready. 

“Even though the rehearsal period was way shorter than is typically optimal, I think things are going very, very well,” Johns said. “I think it’s because we happen to have so many singers involved that it just becomes easier the more folks are around singing. So from that standpoint, there was a big challenge that we expected coming into it. I think the singers have met that challenge and are beginning to exceed expectations in terms of their level of preparation and how they sound.”

Given the size of the choir, rehearsals were divided until this past Monday, when all choir members came together for the first time in Finney Chapel and were conducted through the program by Jiménez. The full choir and orchestra performed together for the first time Wednesday night. Double-degree second-year Lily Bronson, a violist in the orchestra, highlighted the joy of playing alongside the choir.

“It’s wonderful to hear how the choir can highlight the piece and provide an entirely different texture to what I’m used to experiencing in just orchestral music,” Bronson said. “Just having everyone packed up on the Finney stage just creates a level of excitement that I’ve never experienced in any other context.” 

Dean of the Conservatory William Quillen was in the Finney pews during the first joint rehearsal and was excited by the quality of performance.

“It was absolutely thrilling to hear the choir and the orchestra together,” Quillen said. “They have been working incredibly hard, and to hear the sounds coming together for the first time is thrilling beyond words, and I couldn’t be prouder of the students than I am right now. We are greatly looking forward to the performance.”

With the first performance of the program less than two weeks away, Jiménez feels that orchestra rehearsals are gaining momentum and noted that preparations for this concert have been among the best and most productive of his time at Oberlin. Jiménez did, however, acknowledge the impact felt by the passing of Maura Olivero on Friday, Nov. 4. Olivero was a Conservatory fourth-year and trumpet player who would have performed at Carnegie. 

“With the tragic loss of one of our members a few days ago, the ensemble’s energy suffered a great deal,” Jiménez said. “The ensemble has been going through a difficult time trying to regain the focus for this project. But, fortunately, we have music and we have wonderful music, and music is helping us regain focus and enthusiasm.”