Smaller Orchestras Still Dazzle with Rich Sound, Intimacy

Meghan Farnsworth, Staff Writer

Chamber orchestras are small. In fact, they are so small that in 1804, when Beethoven added an additional brass instrument to the traditional two for an orchestra setting in that era, audiences were outraged. Too much brass, they complained. Of course, times are different now: Professional orchestras are tremendous in size when compared to the ones of Beethoven’s day. Today, we call these symphony orchestras, and if 19th-century concertgoers were sitting in a performance of Howard Shore’s score for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, they would likely have cried in agony.

Perhaps, though, the Oberlin Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Conductor Raphael Jiménez would be less offensive to their sensibilities. At least that is what their performance last Thursday seemed to suggest, paying tribute to the music of the past and the present at the cost of only a few decibels.

Hymn, a concerto written to commemorate Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, kicked off the performance. Originally commissioned by the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris to celebrate Mozart’s 250th birthday, the work bears no similarities to the classical balance characteristic of Mozart’s music. Instead, Hymn is like a sea of iridescent, shimmering colors with no idea of what direction it should go except toward the sky. It was mesmerizing; notes blended into each other as though they were melting and coalescing into one cohesive body of sound.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra featured fifth-year, double-degree pianist Daniel Walden. The work was intensely conversational. Sections of melody, taken from Schoenberg’s own musical language known as twelve-tone theory, were shaped and tossed between the pianist and the orchestra.

This work is so quiet in its volume that it requires a small orchestra: the chamber orchestra. While concertos are usually a tight contest in volume and virtuosity between a large orchestra and the soloist, a small ensemble was required in order to correctly interpret Schoenberg’s piano concerto. The work’s emotional gravity is so delicately intertwined with the idea of quiet that if any instrument were to cover the soloist, the conversational and honest quality of the piece would be lost. Walden portrayed these very personal elements with sincerity, fluidity and well-intended direction.

Large orchestras have their roles, but despite their comparatively diminutive size, chamber orchestras can produce a sense of vastness that makes their smallness almost disappear. The intensity and suspense of quiet volumes only make you want to listen closer.