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ARCHIVE: SSSO (November 2014)

Originally published 11/9/2014

This evening I heard the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Larry Rachleff. The program included Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss. It was an extraordinary concert. The Enigma Variations is a theme and 14 variations depicting Elgar’s friends and ending with Elgar himself. Each variation has its own unique character, with shifts of tempo, dynamics, and instrumentation. Pitfalls of execution abound, and more often than not less than ideal performances ensue. Tonight, ensemble issues were honed to a razor’s edge, with spectacular results. Not a single note sounded misplaced, or a chord out of tune, or balance misjudged. Rachleff worked the orchestra like a master craftsman, with his rehearsal preparation and the concert’s execution leaving nothing to chance. All that remained was the inspiration of the moment as realized by the talented young musicians onstage. Excellent solo winds brought the characters to life in several variations, along with beautiful cello and viola solos. The strings seemed to have limitless technical abilities, with flashy scales and tricky spiccato passages coming through with clarity and precision. But it was more than just flash.

Nimrod, the best-known part of the piece, began with a true pianissimo, building ever so gradually. With each dynamic plateau, just when you thought they had exhausted the limit of their volume, a greater level of intensity was achieved. After reaching the huge climax, the music quickly fades away. I have often marveled at the object of this variation, Elgar’s close friend and publisher, whose real name was Jaeger, and who must have been a grand old gentleman. I visualize an aging man seated in a chair, head in his hand, thinking of days gone by. He gradually straightens, becomes erect, then stands, gives a proud salute and sits down again. Tonight’s performance brought such grandeur and majesty to this part that it brought tears to my eyes. I doubt I was alone. There is something very moving about hearing young musicians so thoroughly committed to expressing deep musical feelings together. The Elgar’s combination of technical precision and emotional output made this one of the finest performances of any piece by any orchestra I have ever heard.

Ein Heldenleben is an orchestra’s dream and a conductor’s nightmare. No fewer than four ideas are going on at the same time, making balance and ensemble constant concerns. The orchestra was very well prepared by their conductor and sectional coaches from the SSM faculty, many of whom are members of the Houston Symphony. The HSO played this piece recently, providing an excellent example for the SSSO. The difficult, extensive violin solo was played flawlessly by Co-Concertmaster Philip Marten. Solo woodwinds were top-notch, as were the brass and percussion. Special mention should be made of the French horns, led by principal Jesse Clevenger. The strings were again excellent, having a fullness and depth of sound that was exemplary. I noticed a familiar face playing principal cello.

For many on stage tonight, this may be the finest orchestra they will ever play in. In no way meant to devalue individual capabilities, it simply recognizes the high level heard tonight. It is quite likely they do not yet know how wonderful they sounded together. They should be thankful for each other, and the great training they are receiving.

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