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Orchestra showcases European tastes

By Yehuda Harel
On December 11, 2012

Sunday night, the little hall in Slosberg Music Center struggled to contain the music performed by the Brandeis-Wellesley Orchestra. They played selections from Hansel & Gretel, Vltava (The Moldau) and the "1812 Overture." These three pieces come from three distinct countries: Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Russia. Prof. Neil Hampton (MUS), the conductor said a few words before the "1812 Overture," comparing the concert to a voyage across the European countryside. His comparison seems correct, considering Hansel and Gretel get lost in a German forest, Vltava is a river that runs through Bohemia, part of the Czech Republic and "1812" interprets the French Campaign through the Russian Countryside.

The concert began with Hansel & Gretel, an opera based on the story from Grimm's Fairytales, adapted by Engelbert Humperdinck. Instead of hiding in a pit, the orchestra took center stage, with the singers walking on to sing their roles. The singers each acted their parts, but the star of the show was clearly the orchestra. When the music began, I immediately felt a relationship between the forest referred to by the music and the orchestra performing the music. At times I forgot I was in the hall as the sounds took the form of the story. There Hansel was picking berries with Gretel, while the forest was getting darker. The music was condensing time, and the story seemed to pass in stages, with each flux in rhythm referring to another passing hour.

When Hansel, Prof. Pamela Dellal (MUS), and Gretel, (Andrea Matthews, Professor of Music at Wellesley), walked on, I was struck by the fact that two older women were chosen to play the roles of children. However, they approached the music with such enthusiasm that I was again engaged in the story, and I could link their two voices to the imaginary children. Tamar Forman-Gejrot '16 sung the "Sandman's Aria" sweetly, changing the mood to the calm night of the woods that invites the children to sleep. The Dew Fairy (Elizabeth Crisenbery, a master student in Musicology) brought with her the morning light to wake the children, singing punctually with the orchestra. The witch (Marion Dry, Professor of Music at Wellesley) was well performed, as the singer seemed to conduct the music with sudden movements of her arms, empowering the witch she was playing. Sitting close to the front, I was hoping she wouldn't mistake me for Hansel. The piece ended triumphantly with Hansel and Gretel pushing the witch into the oven.

A nationalistic spirit characterized the next two pieces. "Vltava" is the second of six symphonic poems under the title of "Ma vlast" (My Fatherland) composed by the Czech musician Bedrich Smetana. I have heard this piece many times before, and I always felt it was very personal despite its nationalistic reference. Brought to life again in Slosberg, I felt it maintained its vigor, and the strings kept playing the difficult passages in complete unison. The conductor developed the pacing and included his own interpretation in the piece. When the melody was introduced, it sounded free and almost uncontrolled, like the very river it was describing. Every time the melody retuned the notes sounded more deliberate and definite. This emphasis gave each return to the melody a more developed character. I felt like the piece was maturing during the performance, just as a child's personality traits solidify through the passing years.

The "1812 Overture" is a sweeping depiction of the invasion of the French into Russian territory. The piece begins with only a few members of the orchestra, reflecting the image of an army approaching in the distance. Once the rest of the orchestra joins in, the piece is almost frightening in its description of movement, synchronizing rhythms, pointing to the massive movements of an army through wide plains, from the foot soldiers and the cannons, to the officers on their horses. The French national anthem rings in at certain points, identifying the French army through the melody of the music. Electronic canons blast through when the anthem "God Save the Tsar" sounds, reflecting the coming victory for the Russians. The performance successfully brought to life the war between the French and Russians through the music of Tchaikovsky.

Overall, I left the concert quite enthralled. These pieces were each played well, and each member of the orchestra seemed engaged in the material. The result was a lively concert and a standing ovation that challenged the very cannons preceding it.  

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