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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Orchestra Tells Musical Tale of Desire, Corruption

Author: Abbie Beane

Anticipation crowned the stage on which sat tall cellos, pointed clarinets, glaring French horns and other distinguished instruments. A row of choral singers stood above the instruments like a dark backdrop, eagerly awaiting their debut. Then the musical catalyst entered, dressed up as black as a quarter note and sweeping life into the stage with his arms.

This was the tone set by the Middlebury College Orchestra and Chamber Singers at their concert held last Friday at 8 p.m. in the Center for the Arts Concert Hall.

Conducted by Evan Bennett, musical director of the Middlebury College Orchestra since 1993, the performance drew a moderately large crowd, considering that the event took place at the same time as the Middlebury's men's hockey game.

The concert consisted of two pieces, the first titled "The Eve of Saint Agnes," a collaborative effort between the Orchestra and the Middlebury Chamber Singers, who are directed by Jeff Rehbach. Friday marked the premiere of the piece, composed by Christina Whitten '01.5 with text by John Keats.

Whitten, who studied music at Middlebury, was also an active vocalist and flautist in the Middlebury College Orchestra and Middlebury College Chamber Singers. When asked why she chose to metamorphose this poem into a musical piece, she mentioned that a good friend had read it to her some time ago and that it had left an indelible impression on her mind. "It's kind of dark and romantic," Whitten said, "and that's my style."

When questioned about the difficulty of composing a piece that wove instrumentals and vocals into the same pattern, Whitten admitted that she had a lot of late nights. She said that writing the vocals came more naturally because she is more confident as a singer. She molded the instrumentals around the choral parts.

Despite the challenge, she stressed her desire to see more cooperation between the orchestra and the choir before her graduation. Though the event transpired one month late, the goal seemed nonetheless achieved.

The story inspiring the musical accompaniment describes a young woman named Madeline, who, on the Eve of Saint Agnes, proverbially the coldest night of winter, performs the necessary rituals before lying down to sleep with the hope that they would strengthen a prophetic vision of her husband during the night. However, destiny and purity are interrupted when a young Porphyro glimpsed her beauty and takes her for his bride. An immoral and unripe passion blossoms between the two.

The tone of each phase of the tale was evident from the prelude to the last movement. The strings opened with a low hum, indicating the rituals of an ancient beadsman and Madeleine, before a veil of sopranos and altos from the choir fell in synch with the instrumentals, denoting the exchange of medieval chants.

The delicate balance between the orchestra and the choir endured throughout the piece, which shifted from lyrical to heavy, rushing sounds, building, climaxing and resigning, yet always retaining a certain ominous quality.

During the final movement, "Andante," Porphyros approached the apex of his passion which possessed a sinister air when compared to the feelings of the first movement. This corrupted love was reflected in the heavy sounds of the brass section, swelling and fading away without conviction, which instilled within the audience a sense of danger until the very end, when silence, indicating darkness and death, commanded the scene.

Following the performance, Katie Curler '04, member of the Middlebury College Chamber Singers, said the choir had been practicing the piece since Winter Term, yet surprisingly they had only rehearsed twice with the orchestra. She added, "It was about time the orchestra and the choir worked together."

Bennet also expressed his desire to see more cooperation between the orchestra and the choir, describing the blend as "very powerful and very beautiful." When asked whether it was more difficult to simultaneously conduct the orchestra and the choir, as opposed to the orchestra alone, he said, "It wasn't more difficult, just different."

The final piece, however, was solely orchestral. The instrumentals realized "The Firebird," composed by Igor Stravinsky and written for the Ballet Russe, from the smallest details to the omnipresence of a magical aura.

The tale involves Prince Ivan's search for an exotic bird, his encounter with the engaging Princess Khorovod and the struggle he endures to liberate her from King Kastchei's enchanted garden.

"The Dance of the Firebird" was frantic, dark and anxious, permeated with the stink of a chase, owing equally to brass, wind and string instruments.

"Princess Khorovod's Round Dance," however, was more melodious and lyrical, which served to disarm the audience before the "Infernal Dance of King Kastchei."

This piece sucked the air from the Concert Hall, with its thundering, sensational and nearly ferocious beat. The percussion and the brass dominated the sound.

In the finale, the freedom of the princess was evident from the triumphant and colorful sound of all the instruments rejoicing together.

Ian Ausprey '04, the orchestra manager, admitted the difficulty of the Stravinsky, which they had been practicing since February. Ausprey said of their conductor, "Evan challenges us to such an extent that we have to maximize every minute of our rehearsal time to create the most beautiful music in the end." He followed up, "We always rise to the challenge."

Bennet also agreed to the challenging nature of the piece, although he was reluctant to rank it as the most difficult piece he has ever presented to the orchestra.

He said that he chose it because it tied into the fairy tale theme captured in Whitten's piece, yet at the same time was unique in its tone, which created an interesting contrast.

Comments after the performance were generally positive, and especially notable were the feelings concerning Whitten's piece.

Students and adults alike seemed surprised and pleased with the high musical caliber of work presented by the recent College graduate.