To call Orchestra Hall intimidating could never do justice to the challenge of filling the space with sound. Yet, the St. Olaf Orchestra, fresh off a tour that saw its culmination in a performance at New York City's Lincoln Center, was more than adequately prepared for the task.
Even in front of an expectant estimated audience of 1,300, the orchestra seemed undaunted, taking the stage with the confidence of a centuries-old symphony in its prime. Attacking the opening "Maskarade Overture" with fluid ferocity, the orchestra was primed for an energetic performance.
This energy accelerated through the student soloist section of the performance, as cellist Matthew Beckmann 07 and violist Bridget Callahan 07 showcased their dual prowess.
Beckmann's solo, Elgar's "Cello Concerto," was at once airily graceful and a haunting lament evoking the piece's lamentation of World War I and the dying age of romanticism. His was a weeping, wailing cello, tremulously emoting each note.
Callahan's solo in movement IV of Ernest Bloch's "Suite for Viola and Orchestra" was of equal brilliance. Gliding expressively on Far Eastern melodies, Callahan's viola seemed possessed by the melody, her leaping strings singing as no human voice could.
The performance continued with another Asian-themed piece, Conductor Steven Amundson's own elaboration of the Taiwanese wartime folk song "Longing For Your Return."
Programmed "to speak in empathy with the many Americans who long for the return of loved ones serving in the armed forces," the piece solidified the orchestra's ability to make purely emotional music all the way from the composers pen to the French horn's last questioning note.
The rousing continuation was Halvorsen's "Norwegian Rhapsody," which brought back the flavor of the ensembles three-week tour of Norway with the band and choir last June.
With the experience of Norway's beautiful landscapes behind them, the orchestra members made the paradox of "Norwegian" and "Rhapsody" possible. The audience was left to contemplate the evocations of the ruggedly lyrical Hardanger fiddle over intermission.
As the lights went down for the second half, the orchestra once again dug in for its greatest challenge of the night. The orchestra's confidence in filling Orchestra Hall with its sound was again evident, and summed up in Amundson's telling remark: "I could get used to this."
The orchestra then plunged into Rachmaninoff's "Symphony No. 2," a full-on flourish of Russian romanticism. Moving from the intimate strings of a tundra homestead to grand brass declarations fitting of the tsar himself, the players relished every moment.
With knowing glances and smiles, they displayed a well-deserved "watch this" bravado that enhanced the music, prompting a standing ovation after the finale.
The night's success was cemented by the traditional encore, "The Turtle Dove," which, in its quiet tenderness, proved that this orchestra plays not as many individuals, but as one body, filling empty space with beautiful sound.