Raising the Bar : CUO’s Concert Success

Christian Savage

The Music department’s fall concert series continued last Sunday, October 12 as the Colgate University Orchestra (CUO) took the stage. Under the baton of Professor of Music Marietta Cheng, and accompanied by the talents of guest piano soloist Chu-Fang Huang, the Orchestra presented a scintillating musical program of Liszt, Elgar and Rachmaninov. Local Hamilton residents and Colgate students alike filled the Chapel to hear the concert, although there was a low number of the latter. Those people that came to the concert were certainly not disappointed by the performance (if they were, their two standing ovations were quite convincing otherwise).

Those of you loyal readers out there might remember my discussion of the emotionality of music, especially Romantic music, with regards to the Manhattan String Quartet concert last week. After listening to the CUO’s equally Romantic performance (maybe even more so; Rachmaninov is so romantic he counts for two composers), I was instead impressed most by the balance struck between simple and intricate works. Professor Cheng’s concerts are invariably a mix involving a light, mostly mindless piece (in popular terms think something like “Oops, I Did It Again”), a deeply moving grand opus (“Stairway to Heaven”) and a virtuosic concerto (any of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solos).

The opening work of the concert, Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2”, fell right into this pattern, though I highly doubt Liszt would approve of being compared to Britney Spears. This fast-paced piano turned orchestral work is famous among musicians for its technically treacherous parts. The rest of the world meanwhile knows it from performances by those piano greats such as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny in old cartoon shows; Liszt might be amused to know his work is performed more often in episodes of cartoons than it is in concert halls. In a way though, it is Liszt’s own fault for writing such melodious and catchy themes; for instance no one could listen to the trumpet solo that opens the work and not be swept up into a world of gypsies and fantasy. The continual dance music, broken up by exquisite instrumental solos (I was impressed by Lauren Okada ’11’s clarinet cadenza), added to the jovial mood. By the end of the piece, the lively playing of the Orchestra had me daydreaming of diminutive hunters chasing mischievous rabbits across the Quad.

After Liszt’s bouncy piece drew to a close, I was eager for the slightly more insightful music to follow: Elgar’s Enigma Variations, op. 39. Elgar wrote this set of variations (on an “enigmatic” theme — another way of saying the brightest musical minds have no idea where the theme is from) in honor of his friends. Each variation, in addition to being a musical idea, lovingly includes the subject’s quirks and shortcomings, quirks ranging from a benign stutter all the way down to a love for playing the viola. The CUO took full advantage of the musical possibility of these traits, richly coloring each personality: the mournful and mysterious Enigma theme in the beginning strung out by the strings, the pompous and energetic William Baker (variation 4) strutting around with the brasses, the tympani banging away for Troyte the miserable pianist (variation 7) and Basil Nevinson’s soaring ‘cello solo (in variation number 12) written with the talented ‘cellist in mind. In each case, it sounded like the Orchestra had actually gotten to know the individuals involved (except maybe variation 3, where the unsynchronized and out of tune violins sullied the good name of Richard Townsend).

However, the most transcendent moment of the entire concert came during the Nimrod variation; the violins redeemed themselves from their earlier issues as their transition into the Nimrod was so poignant I could barely keep the tears from my eyes.

Concerts involving the CUO invariably end with a grand symphony or similar opus, so during intermission I was curious why Professor Cheng planned on finishing the afternoon with Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in c minor instead of the magnificently done Enigma. Perhaps I was feeling a bit betrayed, as too often in my experience piano concerti are heavy on the “cacophonous banging on the keyboard” (as quickly as humanly possible of course; after all, isn’t that the same thing as virtuosity?) but notoriously light on subject matter.

I should have known better from Rachmaninov though; while I admit his orchestral writing is a bit lacking in substance (or in a less polite description: “does the orchestra really need to be here?”) his piano lines are overflowing with lush creativity. I’m being too hard on Rachmaninov; there are some important orchestral parts, including a most beautiful French horn solo, but it’s safe to say Chu-Fang Huang stole the show with her impassioned and deeply moving performance. And, while the opening Moderato had examples of the good kind of virtuosity, the most exciting moment came during the beautiful Allegro scherzando (the theme of this movement was later borrowed by Sinatra when he wrote the song “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” and I swear I could hear some older audience members humming along quietly with the piano). At this point the orchestra took an equal part in the music, leading to a dramatic and astounding finish.

At the end of the day, what started as a carefree romp through the musical countryside morphed into a deeply moving experience as the CUO’s masterful playing invited audience members to explore the deepest emotions and complexities music offers. Fortunately the Orchestra will perform again this semester, but they (and indeed every other performer in this fall’s concert series) will have to leap over what they have established as a very high bar of musical excellence.