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Heart-Pounding Passion from Harvard


Five of Harvard’s some 20 or more musical organizations appeared on the Sanders Theatre stage in overwhelming numbers this past Saturday night: Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and the four organizations of the Holden Choirs: Harvard Glee Club, Radcliffe Choral Society, Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus, and Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum.

After experiencing their performance of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2,  I could only begin to imagine the extent of talent and experience walking Cambridge’s Ivy League campus. Heart-pounding passion engulfed in a French nature-scape was in near complete reach of the four Harvard performing groups. “Frenzy” was the word from one of the choristers describing to me his take on the final stretch in the second, more popular, Daphnis et Chloé Suite.

A long-standing spring semester tradition at Harvard is the James Yannatos Concerto Competition that ferrets out the best of the university’s soloists, who then get the opportunity to perform with the orchestra in a pubic concert. This year’s winner of the competition was violinist Julia Glenn ’12, who chose to play the Brahms Violin Concerto and had a good grip on it. Orchestral uncertainties and a prevailing drag did not help the soloist who mastered all the notes up to those requiring a higher virtuosity such as those in the first-movement cadenza. A strong showing of listeners and supporters for HRO’s final concert of the year fully enjoyed every bit of the evening, rising to their feet after Glenn’s commendable demonstration, some encouraging like cheerleaders, others showing true appreciation and respect with noisy clapping.

According to one of HRO’s violinists with whom I spoke briefly before the concert, the tough thing about Debussy’s Ibéria from Images pour orchestra is not so much the notes to play but the way they have to be played. Progressively through the three colorful Spanish portraits the orchestra exuded a musical life, strings particularly leading the way with outstanding wind soloists, in particular the clarinet’s wild “Iberianisms.” On hand were the principle harp player’s parents from Cleveland. They should be proud; their daughter’s solid musical rendering of one of the catchy main themes from the third of Debussy’s Iberian pictures, Le matin d’un jour de fête (Morning of a festival day), was an elevated spot — as were a good number of spots from soloing students.

What does one expect from an undergraduate orchestra these days, especially where there are so many musical options at Harvard vying for instrumentalists? One thing to keep in mind: a good many members of this year’s orchestra were weaned on the baton of the late James Yannatos, whose 40-plus years of leadership developed the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra into a highly respectable performing entity. Only a few years ago, Federico Cortese, the young and exceptionally gifted conductor of more than a few select Boston orchestras, became HRO’s new leader.

During most of last night’s demanding program of Brahms, Debussy, and Ravel, Cortese appeared to work very hard at providing clear-cut entrances and even harder at summoning orchestral expressiveness. All of this was evident in nearly every gesture, where his arms covered far greater space than the actual music called for. This was most telling when the softer, more delicate passages did not match the sweeps of fully extended arms. Cortese’s approaches to the podium conveyed some apprehension. His bows before each of the three pieces were curt, catching the applauding audience off guard, their enthusiasm quelled. Repetitive handshakes with the first chairs also puzzled. An 8:20 start, rather than the scheduled 8:00, also raised concerns.

It was a most wonderful audience for classical music and the hundreds of youth dressed superbly in formal wear, attentive, openly eager and engaged. This strong showing was surely the highlight of the evening.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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