Oberlin student choir and orchestra bring professional polish to Carnegie

Sun Jan 20, 2019 at 3:51 pm
Oberlin College Choir and Orchestra join forces on Stravinsky's "Les Noces" Saturday at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Fadi Kheir/Oberlin Conservatory

Oberlin College Choir and Orchestra join forces on Stravinsky’s “Les Noces” Saturday at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Fadi Kheir/Oberlin Conservatory

For generations, graduates of Ohio’s Oberlin College and especially its affiliated Conservatory of Music have practiced, practiced, practiced and gotten to Carnegie Hall.

Saturday night, it was the student body’s turn, as upwards of 150 well-drilled musicians of the Oberlin College Choir and Oberlin Orchestra entertained a roomful of cheering alumni, parents and fellow students in the fabled auditorium with music both ancient (Stravinsky and Debussy) and modern (O’Regan and Ogonek).

Located geographically on a musical axis that includes the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cincinnati May Festival, the Oberlin Conservatory takes a back seat to no one when it comes to turning out successful, even marquee-name musicians. But there’s nothing like a highly publicized assault on music’s highest peak to get the blood pumping (and the alumni donations flowing).

Even the college’s president, Carmen Twillie Ambar, was on hand to offer upbeat words of welcome, prompting reflections on how long one has to practice, practice academic administration before stepping on the Carnegie stage.

The event eased into music with the gentle tintinnabulations of the choral piece Triptych by the London-born, Morocco-raised composer Tarik O’Regan. Originally with string orchestra, the piece was performed in Dave Alcorn’s luminescent arrangement for percussion.

With choir director Gregory Ristow serving as conductor for this piece, eight percussionists demonstrated a sensitive ear (and wrists of steel) with page after page of pianissimo tremolo in undulating colors of xylophone, marimba, and vibraphone, while the choir intoned poetic texts of death and remembrance from many cultures.

The choir’s finely tuned cluster chords in the opening “Threnody” and tender swells in “As We Remember Them” were mesmerizing. Soprano Risa Beddie’s brief solos seemed to emerge from, and melt back into, a trembling marimba that sounded uncannily like a human voice itself.

The third and last movement, “From Heaven Distilled a Clemency,” stepped out to the African beat of a big djembe hand drum as exuberance passed from the choir to the busy percussionists and back again.

Subtlety in the use of percussion also characterized Stravinsky’s Les Noces (The Wedding). The stage setup, with a sizable instrumental battery and no fewer than four concert grand pianos, seemed to promise a mighty clatter, but the composer used these forces with utmost delicacy in support of the choral enactment of a Russian peasant wedding.

In fact, the choir and soloists lined up downstage, in front of the players, in an arc around Ristow on the podium. They delivered Stravinsky’s ritualized ostinatos crisply and vigorously in Part I, then relaxed a bit into the revelry of Part II, “The Wedding Feast.”

The soloists — soprano Katherine Lerner Lee, mezzo-soprano Perri di Christina, tenor Nicholas Music, and baritone Kyle Miller (joined briefly by choir bass Evan Tiapula) — cut through the choral and percussion sound with clear timbres and smart articulation as they played many characters in the wedding scenes.

With its Kabuki-like aesthetic, Stravinsky’s score was perhaps not the most approachable choice for a festive evening, but as a demonstration of excellent choral preparation by Ristow and the ensemble, it did its job.

Next up was a molder of future Stravinskys, Oberlin’s Assistant Professor of Composition Elizabeth Ogonek, with All These Lighted Things (three little dances for orchestra). The Oberlin Orchestra, with conductor Raphael Jiménez at the podium, was anything but little, cramming the Carnegie stage wall to wall, but delicacy was again the word as the first movement stole in with Ravel-like tinkles, chirps, and tenderly swooping strings.

The movement developed as a collage of floating sounds ripped by menacing brass crescendos, leading to a glacially slow, hypnotic second movement, with fragments of melody stealing in amid smears of descending glissandos.

The closing movement began with dancing pizzicato in the low strings, and the other sections gradually joined in for a cheerful finale — although the composer’s comparison, in the program notes, of her additive process to a fly strip was maybe not the most felicitous.

The fine workmanship of conductor and orchestra in the Ogonek piece whetted one’s appetite for the grand panoramas of La Mer. One could just imagine young musicians of this caliber reveling in the mighty swells and splashes of Debussy’s spectacular score.

Regrettably, that never quite happened. The performance, while proficient, came out rather correct and two-dimensional, getting louder and softer as indicated, the entrances and exits arriving on time, but lacking a sense of direction, much less the elemental surge essential to this music. Conducting mostly with his arms, Jiménez kept the ensemble together, but appeared to fall short as a cheerleader for his team.

But that’s critic talk. On this occasion, one piece that didn’t live up to its potential wasn’t enough to dampen the spirits of the Oberlinites who were vociferously happy to be there. And many of those young players can look forward to a lifetime of practice, cubed, and eventually getting La Mer right, maybe even in Carnegie Hall.

One Response to “Oberlin student choir and orchestra bring professional polish to Carnegie”

  1. Posted Jan 21, 2019 at 2:02 pm by Michael Burritt

    Say what you will about the orchestra’s performance of La Mer, but there is no denying the percussion section knocked it out of the park!! The timpanists intonation was amazing and he was able to achieve such a truly phat tone. The glockenspiel was just what the doctor ordered and the bass drum was clear while the triangle notes sparkled above all else. Must have been a vintage triangle!! The cymbal scrapes reminded me of the the waves I used to fantasize about at my surf spot in Pismo Beach. You can tell these percussionists were trained on calf heads

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