Oberlin Orchestra Makes Brilliant Comeback

Gabriel Kanengiser, Staff Writer

The Oberlin Orchestra returned to Finney Chapel in full form for its second concert of the season on Friday, Nov. 2 — performing works by Jacques Ibert, Peter Schickele and Claude Debussy.

The playful program began with Ibert’s “Escales” (Ports of Call) in which the orchestra delightfully performed romanticized melodies portraying Rome and Palermo, Italy, Northern Africa and Valencia, Spain. In the first movement, solemn nostalgia and sweet memories of the Palermo country juxtaposed with the lively, festive, Roman urbanity. At times, the orchestra sounded like a soundtrack for the life of Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, alternating between eerie dissonances and sweeping ostinati. The second and third movements continued with the same sort of polarities: the second an ominous dance-like movement with heavy rhythmic qualities, and the third a diverse portrayal of quintessentially Spanish motifs and clear depictions of a life in Valencia. The orchestra navigated these changing moods and aesthetics with precise dynamics and exquisite performances by woodwind soloists.

Peter Schickele composed his Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra with a specific soloist in mind: Professor of Bassoon George Sakakeeny. While the piece did not fit in easily with a program of romantic works by Ibert and Debussy, the piece served as a much-appreciated departure from the canonic orchestral music that one often hears. And this piece, to Schickele’s credit, was “serious and complex.”

In the aptly titled first movement, “Blues,” Sakakeeny played with light, Sidney Bechet-like qualities, taking the listener through precisely executed improvisational-sounding and imaginative melodies. The sections that featured Sakakeeny as soloist also served as contrast to the sections of the piece where the orchestra was more involved, and where the piece at times sounded messy and disorganized. The movements that followed conjured up pastoral themes, bluesy melodies and created an effect of modern American classical music. Whether that was the popularization of classical compositional techniques or the classicization of popular American themes, it was greatly appreciated. This piece and, most importantly, its performance sought to do precisely what the orchestra failed to accomplish with the Christopher Rouse piece from their previous concert: perform modern orchestral music that draws on a diverse set of traditions and genres for influence.

The Concerto was perfectly likable overall, but what stood out in the performance was the chirping fluidity of Sakakeeny’s playing, and the wonderful dialogue that the Concerto presented between soloist and orchestra.

The third and final piece performed by the orchestra was Debussy’s “La Mer,” an absolute dream in which the world consists of the sea, crashing waves, rippling tides and emotional depths. The orchestra filled Finney Chapel with their diverse dynamics during Debussy’s piece; from the calmness of the woodwinds to the precise clamoring of the entire orchestra, Finney was filled with a blissful sound that the orchestra had not employed since some time last season.

However, the Debussy piece also demonstrated a renewed vivacity from conductor Rafael Jiménez, who brought energy to the orchestra that matched the spirit of their playing. During the finale, Jiménez’s direction was awe-inspiring and chilling. If the orchestra continues to improve and play at this level, anyone who misses its next concert will be sorry.