By Samantha Spaccasi
The large audience at Oberlin’s Warner Concert Hall experienced something spectacular on Friday evening, but don’t expect to hear about all of it. Due to the fact that Vijay Iyer’s Trouble for violin and chamber orchestra was still being tweaked, the publisher requested that no one review the artistry or the piece itself.
For this “workshop performance,” the last event in violinist Jennifer Koh ’97 and Iyer’s four-day residency at the Conservatory, the Oberlin Sinfonietta and conductor Tim Weiss teamed with Koh for an event Schott Music only wanted writers to describe in the most basic terms.
Here’s essentially what Schott dictated: Trouble was written for Koh and commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Cal Performances at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Ojai Music Festival, where it will be premiered on June 8. It will be performed with Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble and the International Contemporary Ensemble. These forces will also perform Iyer’s work at Cal Performances on June 15. End of dictation.
After intermission, the Sinfonietta returned to perform Clint Needham’s Chamber Symphony. The work was partially inspired by the mood of the 2008 presidential election. The first movement, “Hammering Out,” almost prompted audience members to jump out of their seats, with the entire orchestra thundering through the first few notes. The strings fluttered, evoking an atmosphere of tension. It was as if Needham created a soundtrack depicting the presidential candidates and their staffers preparing for an important debate. Percussionist Kelsey Bannon demonstrated a strong sense of rhythm, as if sounding the drums of war. Occasionally, the orchestra sounded unfocused, but Weiss reined them in quickly.
The highlight of the work was the second movement, “Open-ended Echoes.” The piece began with boisterous low strings establishing a tone of hope after the first movement’s anxiety. The violins wailed a painful and lonely melody in the high register, with the harp echoing. Any hopes established in the work’s first movement were quickly and brutally dashed.
Despite a physically and emotionally intense first two movements, Weiss and the orchestra sustained a high level of energy throughout “Radiant Nation,” the third movement. The percussion writing was the most intriguing part of this piece, as it incorporated non-Western instruments, including rainsticks. The creative use of percussion continued as the last part of the work combined a drum set and pop-music backbeat with the orchestra playing a jazzy melody. The higher strings had some tentative moments, but they became more polished as the performance proceeded.
Samantha Spaccasi is a senior Environmental Studies major at Oberlin College. She is a staff arts writer for The Oberlin Review and has written for feminist arts blog TYCI. She also runs her own pop music blog, Culture Devourer. In her free time, she enjoys bad reality TV shows and looking at pictures of dogs on the Internet.