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ARCHIVE: SSSO (February 2015)

Originally published 2/14/2015

Last night, the Wheeler family attended the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra concert, with three in the audience and one on stage. While these concerts have become very popular, that was not the reason for the fully occupied parking lots on the Rice campus. At the same time there was a baseball game between Rice and UT. Regardless of the outcome of that sports contest, Rice emerged victorious in this concert. The program began with a new work by the young composer Robert McClure called Warning Colors. It was conducted by Associate Conductor Jerry Hou. Scored for a massive orchestra, the work is a study in the attributes rather than the sounds of various insects, and employs three types of musical mimicry. Fragments and gestures are imitated and varied without the use of a single tune or melody. The work is expertly constructed and orchestrated, with the overall impression being a score for a movie. Much of it sounded as if it could have been seamlessly inserted into Star Wars. Conductor Hou maintained clarity and control throughout, and the orchestral playing was committed and excellent.

Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony was led by Larry Rachleff. While this work was programmed before seeing the score of Warning Colors, it was an interesting pairing. Whereas McClure uses musical fragments, Sibelius uses short motifs, alternately tuneful and dancelike, to created longer lines and sections that convey melody. In this regard, he can remind us of Beethoven. The structure of the first movement, with two separate subjects and expositions, brings to mind the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, which has an unconventional two themes for its variations. Even the final six staccato chords remind of the short chords at the end of Beethoven’s 5th, with each following an extended tuneful section and each being a surprise. As was the case with many 20thcentury composers, Sibelius shifted attention to the wind section, delaying the use of strings. The fine woodwind and French horn players in the orchestra played with precision and joyful expression. Throughout, Rachleff expertly shaped each phrase, whether played by pairs of instruments or the full orchestra. The range of dynamics and colors was remarkable, with each section making significant contributions. It was a model of fine orchestral playing.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances concluded the program. This piece was a mainstay of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who premiered it, and Rachmaninoff said he thought of that orchestra when writing for orchestra. Each section of the SSSO excelled in this fiendishly difficult piece. To quote an esteemed musician at the concert, this rendition was “as satisfying as any I have ever heard or played.” While this performance was first-rate, it was a lighter version than the piece’s dedicatee. The Philly Orchestra I grew up with was made up of rugged individualists who melded into a tonally ravishing whole. Students in a large ensemble, even the most gifted, give primary attention to details of intonation, tone, and ensemble. But the greatest musical moments transcend those necessary qualities and achieve the greater goal of elevated human expression. To be sure, those moments emerged in this exceptional performance. With confidence, conviction, and Rachleff’s expert direction, it will happen even more.

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