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ARCHIVE: SSSO (April 2014)

Originally published 4/26/14

I have heard two concerts in two evenings featuring ensembles from the Shepherd School of Music. Last night was the Chamber Orchestra, with soprano Susan Lorette Dunn and piano soloist Zhu Zhu. Tonight was the Symphony Orchestra, with cello soloist Coleman Itskoff. Both student concerti were conducted by Thomas Hong. The CO opened Thursday’s concert with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, conducted by Larry Rachleff. Virtually flawless in execution, it was given a taut performance that conveyed all the drama packed into Beethoven’s popular overture. Robust string chords and spiccato passages in c-minor contrasted with silky smooth clarinet solos in the relative major of E-flat. The result was quite impressive. Pianist Zhu also achieved contrasts in her virtuosic performance of the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1, where E-flat served a very different role, being dramatic and declamatory. As in the overture, sensitive and lyrical clarinet solos provided expressive relief. Rachleff returned to conduct selections from Chants d’Auvergne by Canteloube, sung by Miss Dunn (his wife.) She gave a sparkling and idiomatic-sounding rendition, with appropriate theatrical gestures. Following the songs was Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Scored for pairs of woodwinds, plus 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings, the work was given uncommon clarity within brisk tempi. The string tone was crystalline, often achieving the elusive translucent quality of the Viennese style. Particularly beautiful were exquisitely blended and tuned woodwinds, written in pairs. The interpretation ranged from the understated to the passionate, making full use of rubati and tempo changes.

The SSSO opened tonight’s concert with Richard Strauss’ Don Juan. Simply put, it was spectacular. Seldom does one hear individual string sections playing with such virtuosity and precision. Likewise, the winds and brass, whether in sections or solo roles, played at professional levels. Most notable were several oboe solos that were suave and seductive, and horn section passages that sounded confident and virile. Thomas Hong returned to the podium to lead the orchestra in Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, with Coleman Itskoff as soloist. This concerto is regarded as one of the greatest for any instrument, having parts for both soloist and orchestra that are unexcelled. Hong led with an energetic and intense style, providing a sensitive and mostly well-balanced accompaniment. Itskoff, for his part, played with a confidence and range of expression seldom heard in a student soloist. He is a natural performer, at home on the stage and before an orchestra. He was clearly enjoying performing this great work with his friends and colleagues, and their efforts were rewarded with an enthusiastic standing ovation from the sold-out audience. We have not heard the last from this gifted cellist who is graduating this spring.

Concluding the program was Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suites 1 and 2, with the orchestra joined by an excellent large choir and led by Larry Rachleff. The less-familiar Suite 1 began with an almost inaudible shimmer, growing to a theme in the violas that would be heard again in the richer and plusher Suite 2. There, the opening sunrise, led by the violas, with added bird calls in three solo violins, grew in volume and intensity to a glorious climax. The Pantomime middle section showcased extensive and beautifully played solo flute passages. The piccolo was also especially energetic and brilliant. The only flaw was a slight misalignment of the rapid scales coursing through the four flute parts. The final dance section was quite fast but also clear. The uneven rhythms, often in five, were perfectly together. The trumpets, brilliant throughout the piece, played their triplet passage in thirds with energy coupled with restraint. This sign of musical maturity was a hallmark of this orchestra all evening long.

The two evenings featured 185 young musicians in what is widely regarded as perhaps the finest orchestral program in the country. They achieve a level of playing that equals and sometimes exceeds professional orchestras. This is due to the excellent faculty and superb preparation by Larry Rachleff. We will have to see what is in store for each of them in the future.

While this is something to celebrate, we should be reminded that there are at least another dozen “top” music schools, each with their share of talented and well-trained musicians. All will compete for a handful of jobs each year, leaving the majority to choose graduate school or a change of profession. Is this ethical? What is the solution?

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