University Philharmonia Orchestra impresses audiences at Hill Auditorium

Wednesday, September 25, 2019 - 4:20pm

Sammy Sussman

Sammy Sussman Buy this photo
NOSELL

Few collegiate orchestras have the dexterity to maintain a stylistically disparate repertoire. And fewer still are capable of performing Beethoven symphonies alongside lesser-known mid-20th-century American orchestral works.

But the University Philharmonia Orchestra proved they were capable of this and much more at their year-opening concert this past Monday night at Hill Auditorium. This was the University Philharmonia Orchestra’s first concert since the departure of former conductor Oriel Sans. Adrian Slywotzky, the ensemble’s new conductor, proved that he is more than capable of continuing the adventurous programming and occasional classic repertoire of Sans’s tenure.

The concert began with Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 2 in D Major,” a turbulent piece that repeatedly fluctuates between simple, light material and loud, dark, complex material. The orchestra handled these shifts in the first movement with great dexterity, building towards a clear peak before falling back down. The lower string sound, in particular, blew me away in this movement.

Unfortunately, as with many performances of this work, the orchestra struggled slightly at the beginning of movement two — the energy of the first movement gives way to a slow, lyrical second movement, and many orchestras struggle to give this movement equal emotional weight. By the middle of the movement, however, the orchestra seemed to have found their stride again. I was particularly impressed with the length of the crescendi and decresendi that the orchestra was able to maintain, as they stretched these musical events over ten to twenty seconds worth of music.

While the orchestra had a few problems maintaining their blistering tempo at the beginning of the third movement, they recovered after a couple of measures and stuck together throughout the remainder of the movement. By its end, they had found their stride and were well within their element.

The fourth movement was thus a tour-de-force in early-Beethovenian orchestral performance, as short motivic figures jumped around the orchestra and tension built before a final loud thematic recapitulation. Slywotzky decided to begin this movement with minimal pause, and I, for one, was taken aback by the confident, strident texture — and the movement only built from there. Melodic fragments jumped from bassoon to violin, for example, while the underlying accompanimental figures continued unrelentingly.

By the end of the piece, I was exhausted for the orchestra. They had made a valiant effort in tackling this staple of the repertoire, and though it wasn’t perfect, I couldn’t have been more impressed with their attempt. 

After a brief intermission, the concert continued with two works by lesser-known mid-20th-century American composers, William Grant Still and Walter Piston. The first piece, Still’s “Poem,” was an interesting juxtaposition of jazz harmonies and orchestral compositional techniques. The fast writing in the beginning, for example, was not particularly memorable to my ears. Though there were some interesting surface-level ideas, the basic musical content never evolved past repetition and slight transformation.

The second half of the piece, however, consisted of a simple yet beautiful melody accompanied by slowly-evolving orchestral chords. It made the whole piece, if not the whole concert, worth it, and even as I sit and try to write this review a day later, I can’t quite get it out of my head.

The last piece on the program, Piston’s “The Incredible Flutist Suite,” was an interesting coalescence of various musical styles and genres: a “siesta,” a minuet, a waltz, a march and a polka. It was a fun, light ending to the program, a good balance to the complexity of the Beethoven and the simple beauty of the Still.

One aspect of the Piston that caught me off guard was the “Circus March,” in which members of the orchestra screamed as though they were attending a circus while the brass and percussion sections played traditional circus-esque music. “The Flutist” was also impressive, the flute soloist’s impressive concerto-like playing easily earning the “Incredible Flutist” portion of the title.

The large orchestral forces at work in this piece stood in stark contrast to the smaller ranks of the other two pieces. (This was the only piece on the program that included a piano part, and I was quite impressed with the pianist’s ability to blend with the sound of the larger). My one complaint, if any, was that Piston’s orchestrations tended towards the percussion heavy ends of the orchestral spectrum, particularly in his use of bass drum and snare. But after two lighter pieces, this was an interesting change in flavor.

If this concert was a sign of what’s to come for the University Philharmonia Orchestra under Adrian Slywotzky this coming year, I can’t help but be excited. While doubts frequently accompany changes in faculty such as this one, it is obvious that the orchestra remains in good hands.