Review: Symphony Orchestra and Wind Symphony Feature in Triumphant Return to Live Music

The Majestic Theater's marquee advertises a Sunderman Conservatory concert for the first time in nearly two years (Photo courtesy of Megan McCook '23)

The Majestic Theatre’s marquee advertises a Sunderman Conservatory concert for the first time in nearly two years (Photo courtesy of Megan McCook ’23)

By Casey Ottaway, A&E Editor

On Thursday Oct. 7, the Sunderman Conservatory’s Symphony Orchestra and Wind Symphony featured in the Conservatory’s first concert in the Majestic Theatre since February 2020. As those first dulcet notes reverberated through the theatre it was as though the music itself understood the weight of the moment. Under the direction of Dr. César Leal, the symphony orchestra opened the Fall 2021 concert season on an unusually introspective note with a setting of Anton Bruckner’s 1879 mellifluous chorale “Os Justi.”

Under Leal’s baton, the ensemble brought “Os Justi” beautifully to life; gentle and soulful, soothing yet resolute. Within the pure harmonies was a contemplative sense of understanding, expressing the simple joy and beauty of live performance while soberly reflecting on three semesters without such opportunities and on the realities of the still-present dangers of an ongoing pandemic. “The future is always uncertain,” the music seemed to say, “but this only means we ought to appreciate the moments of the present all the more.” 

These themes continued through the second piece, a setting of Erik Satie’s atmospheric and wistful piano trio “Gymnopédie No 1,” before the orchestra jolted the audience from its reverie with a rousing performance of the energetic and playful “Danza Final” from Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s ballet Estancia. This was followed by the “Finale” from Igor Stravinsky’s famous Firebird Suite, a grand and majestic work that featured frantic bowing patterns for the strings and some particularly melodramatic timpani work performed by Owen MacDonald ‘25. 

The orchestra’s penultimate piece on the program was “Tolú,” written by 20th century Colombian composer and clarinetist Lucho Bermúdez. A vibrant Latin piece, Tolú is built around a lively call and response between the trumpets and violins. Tolú also featured Chloe Dougherty ‘22 on an entrancing clarinet solo.

Finally, the orchestra’s portion of the concert ended with a surprise appearance from the balcony by the Gettysburg College Concert Choir on “Va Pensiero,” also known as “The Chorus of the Enslaved Jews.” From the 1841 opera Nabucco by Giuseppi Verdi, “Va Pensiero” is one of the most famous pieces of opera music ever written. 

All the members of the orchestra wore the flag of a Latin American country of their choice in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, and the orchestra’s half of the program featured two works by Latin American composers: Ginastera’s “Danza Final” and Bermúdez’s “Tolú.”

After intermission, Dr. Russell McCutcheon and the Sunderman Conservatory Wind Symphony began their set with a fastball, opening with the legendary Leonard Bernstein’s “Slava!” Dedicated to Bernstein’s longtime friend Slava Rostropovich, “Slava!” is a rollicking, vaudevillian tune that engrossed and enthralled Thursday’s audience from start to finish.

For their second piece, the Wind Symphony performed the five-movement Suite Française by Darius Milhaud. A French Jew, Milhaud emigrated to the United States in 1940 and was unable to return to France while the second World War raged through his homeland. Written in 1944, the five movements of Suite Française are named after five French provinces hit hard by war: Normandie, Bretagne, Île de France, Alsace-Lorraine, and Milhaud’s home, Provence. 

McCutcheon and the Wind Symphony followed the Suite Française with a moving and uplifting rendition of modern American composer Ayatay Shabazz’s “A Quiet Journey Home,” based on the gospel hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”

The members of the wind symphony played the last piece of the evening, a composition by Alex Shapiro entitled “Lights Out,” from memory. They cleared the stage, leaving only the percussion instruments. Members of the audience had received glow sticks upon arrival that evening, which they brought out for this final performance. 

The stage was dark and the crowd hushed until McCutcheon powered up a glowing neon vest and began to conduct the piece with what appeared to be an air traffic control baton. The members of the ensemble made their entrances from the wings and from the aisles, lighting up their instruments as they did so, with a few musicians even sporting illuminated hairpieces. The piece itself was an ethereal combination of synthetic and acoustic, beginning with an almost uncanny percussion feature and slowly adding instruments in an atmospheric fashion before bursting into an intense and engaging climax.

Four members of the ensemble, Bryn Werley ’23, Eric Gabriel ’22, Logan Shippee ’22, and Michael Tropp ’25, were responsible for staging the spectacular light show at the heart of “Lights Out.” Audience members were encouraged to film the piece and share their videos, which will be used to create a unique video of the Wind Symphony’s unique performance of this piece. The video of Lights Out will be posted in the coming days to the Sunderman Conservatory YouTube channel.

The Sunderman Conservatory Symphony Orchestra will next perform on Dec. 3 at 8:00 p.m. at the Majestic Theatre, while the Sunderman Conservatory Wind Symphony will next perform on Nov. 20 at 8:00 p.m. at the Majestic Theatre.

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Author: Casey Ottaway

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