Oberlin Orchestra Renews Interest in Classical Music

Gabriel Kanengiser

A few years ago, I was listening to Los Angeles’s local classical music radio station, KUSC, with my grandfather and my brother on our way to lunch. After Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, followed by Mahler’s First Symphony, my grandfather began to ask us if we listened to any “new classical” music.

At the time, I didn’t. My grandfather said that he was very confused about the status of classical music communicated by the radio station. There simply wasn’t enough diversity, and he made an interesting point: Why did the DJs play only the canonical composers? You know, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, etc. That is not to say that listeners do not like these composers; their genius is undeniable, but it’s a little disappointing to hear classical or concert music portrayed as something that is mostly 200 years old. So it should come as no surprise that a program featuring three pieces written in 1980 or later would be of great interest to me. 

Last Saturday, Sept. 29, the Oberlin Orchestra’s eclectic program satisfied my desire for diversity and established a clear starting-off point for its semester. This can be attributed to the orchestra’s conductor, Raphael Jiménez. Since his arrival at the beginning of last year, he has established more cohesion in the orchestra, and with each successive concert, the orchestra seems to be more artistically unified, as was the case with this most recent performance.

The program began with Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. The piece is solemn to say the least; it began with the percussionist hitting a bell, and soon the grim, eerie aura of the orchestra’s tones swept through Finney Chapel. The dissonant and quiet melodies at the beginning of the piece allowed Finney itself to serve as an instrument. Its unique squeaks and creaks became a part of the music. The main themes of the piece felt as if they were conjured up by Jiménez himself, the descending melodies spinning out from the orchestra mechanically, slowly. The rich melodic themes played by the orchestra were intensely morose. But the dark melody was juxtaposed with the ongoing and looming bell chimes, rendering Cantus even more haunting because it brings together so many emotional elements. At the end of the piece, long-sustained orchestral tones stop, and the audience is left with the bell sounding.

The second piece that the orchestra played, Chain II: Dialogue for Violin and Orchestra by Witold Lutoslawski, featured violinist Jennifer Kuh, OC ’97. The dialogue between Kuh, Jiménez and the orchestra was so delightful that it was impossible not to be completely captivated by the performance. This piece also saw Jiménez step back from his usual, slightly flamboyant and controlling presence on stage, as he let Kuh be the guiding presence for the piece.

After intermission, the program continued with Igor Stravinsky’s famous ballet The Firebird. Jiménez deserves credit for assembling a program that subtly set a mood that was simultaneously morose and joyous. He conjured a bird swooping through icy winter nights and blazing on a summer horizon. It was as if each emotion was brought out in a moment, and then left with another flap of the bird’s wings.

However, the evening was brought to an astonishing and unfortunate conclusion when the orchestra ended with Christopher Rouse’s A Nevill Feast, a piece that featured a percussionist on the drum set and even an electric bassist in the orchestra. Yes, that’s right, an electric bassist. For context, Rouse, OC ’71, wrote A Nevill Feast later in his career, when he decided to take a break from “serious and complex” music. The piece featured uninteresting melodies that were not executed with the virtuosity expected of Conservatory students, but with the virtuosity of a practical joke—a joke completely missed by the audience. What is worse, after establishing an enthralling atmosphere with the first three pieces on the program, the evening came to a close in such distaste.

After a truly powerful first three-quarters of the concert, gracefully led by Jiménez, why did the Oberlin Orchestra conclude with a drastic change in the tone of the performance, playing a piece of music that the composer actually described as being less serious? Why was there an electric bassist on stage? Why did the drum “solo” taken by a trained Oberlin Conservatory percussionist recall a middle-school jazz band drummer soloing over “Take the A Train” rather than the drumming stylings of Iannais Xenakis or even a high-school jazz band drum solo? It was appalling to see an evening’s worth of mood setting, of careful and exquisite directing, be ruined by such a ghastly performance.

In theory, the choice of A Nevill Feast was surely well intended. But was this a choice made by Oberlin’s administration, hoping to feature an alumnus’s music, or by Director of Orchestras Raphael Jiménez? Regardless, the success of the Oberlin Orchestra’s first performance of the season, and of Jiménez’s leadership, was evident in spite of the last piece of the evening. The performance of new pieces is certainly vital to maintaining and increasing interest in the classical genre, and the compositions by Pärt and Lutoslawski achieved this. As for A Nevill Feast? Get serious.