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ARCHIVE: SSSO (October 2014)

Originally published 10/5/14


This evening, I heard the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Larry Rachleff, with works by Barber, Webern, and Prokofiev. The program began with the Overture to “The School for Scandal” by Samuel Barber. His first orchestral work, it has a disjunct first theme first presented in the first violins. It is exceedingly difficult to play, but the young musicians did so with a technical ease that allowed for subtle shadings and stunning ensemble. This attention to detail and a shimmering sound carried through each of the string sections, displaying a virtuosity that was understated yet powerful in its execution. The lyrical second theme is first played by the oboe. Here, as in the Violin Concerto, Barber favored the oboe with one of his most beautiful melodies. It was sensitively played by the talented first oboist and later echoed by the English horn. Two rubato clarinet solos were executed flawlessly, with accompanying strings fitting in perfectly. The sense of rubato and its necessary flexibility was in evidence throughout the piece. The great recording from the early 1960’s by Thomas Schippers and the New York Philharmonic presents a muscular and driven version. Tonight’s was no less energetic, but offered a bit more internal shaping and tonal flexibility. The fact that a fine university orchestra can play such a demanding piece so well is a compliment to them, their teachers, and most of all their conductor.


Before performing Anton Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, Mr. Rachleff spoke to the audience about the work and had the orchestra play some of his “favorite parts.” This proved to be invaluable since the movements are quite short, and even those familiar with the work may miss all that’s going on. It is easy to dismiss Webern’s music as being cold, intellectual, and irrelevant. When given the backstory and insightful explanation, this music earns greater respect for its humanity and tightly drawn emotion. It was given a (gasp!) ravishing interpretation by the SSSO thanks to the expert navigating by Rachleff.


The final piece was Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. His most popular symphony and one of his greatest works, it is a masterpiece of orchestration, displaying varied character and emotion. The orchestra played with a cohesive brilliance that conceptually brought to mind a young Concertgebouw Orchestra. There was a chamber-music sense of ensemble that kept the texture clear and the balance impeccable. Each player seemed immersed in the creative moment and inspired by the fabulous writing, if not each other’s playing. The strings tossed off thorny technical passages with ease. The brass gave balanced support, along with excellent French horn and trumpet solos. The percussion added precisely placed flourishes and effects. The woodwinds had great balance and intonation, with especially memorable clarinet solos.


There was much to admire throughout the symphony. The first movement had grace, nobility, and power. Only in the densely written forte and fortissimo passages would I have wished for a thicker string sonority. I really enjoyed the waltz portion of the scherzo with its viola melody supported by supple and subtle accompanying parts across the full orchestra. It had a buoyant feel where one’s feet seemed never to touch the floor. The third movement conveyed an emotional power that belied the age of the performers. The 4th movement had brilliant metronomic and mechanical execution. At the end, the imaginary industrial machine, having been relentlessly driven by an onerous clock, begins to break down. Suddenly, a string quartet portrays a resilient human spirit that regains strength and sprints to the end. All was performed with impressive style by the SSSO. This was a most enjoyable concert.

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