The Perfect Blend: Colgate Orchestra



Deborah Charney

Every Wednesday evening, 70 talented musicians gather in Memorial Chapel for an opportunity to expand their musical repertoires, learn from more experienced performers and have fun with fellow Colgate and professional musicians who are members of the group. Who are these musicians meeting each and every week? They are the members of our very own, very talented, orchestra. Now in its 31st season and led by Professor of Music Marietta Cheng, Colgate’s orchestra of students and local professionals puts on two concerts every year for our student body and the Hamilton community to enjoy.

The orchestra itself is composed of 41 string instruments, 12 wind instruments, 13 brass instruments and four percussion instruments. These instruments are played not only by members of our Colgate community, but also by professional players from the surrounding areas of New York. This composition of musicians, two-thirds students and one-third professionals, allows for the orchestra to perform the same impressive repertoire of music as the New York Philharmonic. Recent pieces they have performed include Bach’s “Double” Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, both of which are famous works in the world of orchestral performance. Chang believes that this selection of challenging music creates an “educational balance, for links with music department courses and for interdisciplinary connections.” The difficult level of the music increases the confidence of members of the group and widens their repertoires.

“We play such exciting music,” sophomore orchestra member Taylor Farmer said, “music that I never thought I would be able to play for a concert, sometimes after only five weeks of rehearsal. What an accomplishment!”

The members of Colgate’s orchestra are lucky enough to be led by accomplished conductor Cheng, who has held her current position in the orchestra since 1993. She also serves as Music Director of the Orchestra of the Southern Finger Lakes, one of the premiere regional professional orchestras, as well as the conductor of an annual acclaimed children’s concert series by the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. Cheng is one of the most prominent women conductors in the country, and has been featured on CNN and at Lifetime Television’s National Summit in Washington, DC. She has also been chosen from all the women conductors worldwide as one of the 50 greatest women conductors, and will be profiled in the Women Conductors of the Twentieth Century by Elke Blankenburg. Cheng has also received honors for her work as a professor of music and orchestra conductor here at Colgate. She was the recipient of the 2005 Distinguished Teaching Award and the 2005 Colgate AAUP Professor of the Year Award.

In addition to the accomplished company that Cheng keeps as her ever-growing list of achievements lengthens, she is also always delighted to engage the student performers in music each week at orchestra rehearsal.

“The Colgate University Orchestra students are exceptional!” she said. “It’s a great privilege for me to conduct the Colgate University Orchestra because the students are phenomenally talented and are able to rise to every challenge. And we always throw in a few of those. The orchestra, which is extraordinary, has been called a gem in Colgate’s crown.”

Student members of the orchestra feel just as passionately about belonging to and performing with the group as does Professor Cheng. First-year Paige Van den Heever commented on her experiences in the Colgate Orchestra.

“One of the things that drew me to Colgate, besides its prestige, was how many wonderful things I heard about the music program,” she said. “And after playing in the orchestra myself, I agree with all of the things I had heard.”

Cheng noted that music performance, a division of the music department at Colgate, is the only academic field that “demands years of study before a student arrives on campus.” Most orchestra members come to Colgate’s group with an average of nine years of experience in musical performance.

Not all orchestra members major, or even minor, in music. An example of this is senior Carissa Schreck, who has been student principal violist since her first year. Schreck is a mathematical economics major. Although she had been playing the viola for eight years prior to her entry into Colgate’s orchestra, Schreck was nervous upon taking on the role of the only student violist during her first year.

“When the professionals were not at rehearsal, it was intimidating,” she said. “However, being ‘alone’ in my section made me want to practice more to prove that I could stand on my own. I became confident in myself and began to really enjoy playing in such an intense musical atmosphere.”

After conquering the intimidation of playing alone as one of the youngest members of such a talented group, Schreck grew musically and was prepared to share her experiences with the new freshman violists. Currently, the orchestra is an outlet for Schreck to explore her musical talents, while also taking a break from her academic focus in the natural sciences.

“The orchestra still allows me to pursue my passions for music,” she said, “creates an atmosphere for team building and individualistic development, but most of all, allows me to have fun while working towards creating a first-rate product.”

Another of the orchestra’s student principal musicians, senior Natalie Reed, came into Colgate’s group with eight years of experience, not only playing her instrument but also playing in an orchestra.

“Personally, I’ve played in the orchestra since 5th grade and I love it!” she said.

For experienced musicians like Reed, the opportunity to learn from professionals is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a member of Colgate’s orchestra.

“It’s great having the professionals because we alternate seating, one professional and one student on each stand, and we learn a lot from them,” she said. These professional musicians are right there with the students, able to share not only their talent in the fundamentals of musical performance, but also experiences they have had as musicians. Cheng describes this arrangement as creating “an optimal learning environment” for all involved.

Although the orchestra’s final concert of the semester has already been held, two concerts will be performed in the spring semester. All students, regardless of musical knowledge and talent, are invited to come enjoy upcoming performances.