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ISSUE 120 VOL 9 PUBLISHED 12/1/2006

Philharmonia's prowess: ensemble shows the joy of making music

By Cody Venzke
Variety Editor

Friday, December 1, 2006

On Monday, Nov. 20, the St. Olaf Philharmonia performed its annual fall concert in the nearly complete Boe Chapel under the direction of Interim Conductor Dr. J. Robert Hanson. Parents, students and faculty filled the audience for the 90-minute performance of five selections.

The Philharmonia opened the performance with two movements from "La Sultane Suite" by French composer François Couperin. The selections featured two contrasting movements, appropriately labeled "Gravely" and "Joyfully" in the original composition.

The strings led the orchestra through the solemn first movement. Gracefully and gradually, the ensemble built the piece over long, grave phrases. Abruptly, the entire ensemble exploded into the joyful second movement. Again, the strings led the ensemble, and the transition from the noble first movement to the rapid second movement demonstrated the versatility of the entire ensemble. After the piece, Hanson addressed the audience, remarking on the beauty of the chapel.

The second piece, "Première Rhapsodie" by Claude Debussy, featured the Philharmonia's former director Jo Ann Polley on the clarinet. Though the piece is built around the complex clarinet solo, the orchestra continued to shine, often sharing the melody with Polley in question-and-answer strains. As the melody rolled from ensemble to soloist and back again, the entire piece itself was caught in a mesmerizing pull between the cautious and the expectant.

Gradually, the ensemble and the soloist shed the initial, cautious strands, culminating in a final, triumphant mesh between the clarinet solo and each section of the ensemble.

The final performance before intermission featured a piece written by Hanson, "Choral Fantasy on Savior of Nations, Come." Though the first movement of the piece opened with a majestic, quiet prelude, the movement was short-lived. Abruptly and violently, a deluge of brass and percussion erupted from the ensemble as the second movement began. Dark and menacing, the ensemble built the movement to a dramatic break in the music as the strings and brass gave way to a quiet rumble of snares. The strings quickly seized the piece again, tensely driving it forward. As the music built, mysterious and foreboding, the ensemble and Hanson maintained an eerie calm, seemingly in control as the music spiraled into a riveting chaos.

Just as the music became overwhelming, drowning the audience in a flood of strings and bells, the ensemble struck the devastating finale, full of hopeful, desperate flourishes from the woodwinds, clinging to the rafters of the chapel until tragically consumed by the menacing brass and strings lurking below. The piece ended in utter opposition to its quiet, majestic prelude: violent, terrifying and completely awesome.

After the intermission, the Philharmonia returned with Johannes Brahms's "Academic Festival Overture," constructed around several traditional student songs in Germany. Boastful and proud, the ensemble's sections competed with one another, the horns calling out and the strings answering. Ultimately, the piece was a celebration of academics, community and youth.

The Philharmonia closed the evening with selections from Russian composer Igor Stravinsky's "The Firebird Suite No. 2." The larger piece by Stravinsky is built around several Russian fairy tales, and each of the movements represent various stories within the tale.

The first selection performed, "The Princesses' Round: Khorovod," was carried by the woodwinds. Lighter and more lyrical than the movements to follow, the princesses' dance was sweet and emotive. The strings soon joined the woodwinds in a lulling, peaceful melody.

The second selection, however, tells the story of the monstrous King Kashchei's evil dance. The brass soon overtook the initial, ominous rumbling of percussion, giving the audience a sensation of spiraling upward. As the dance grew more tumultuous, the demons of the tale joined their king. Reaching its climax, the dance burst into a swirl of melodies as the strings joined the rest of the ensemble. Finally, the wicked dance dissolved as it had begun, into the thunder of the percussion section.

The final selection of the evening began quietly, as had the princesses' dance. This story, of the Firebird's triumph over the monster Berceuse, was driven forward by the tremolo of the violins. The quiet intensity of the band soon enveloped the chapel. Suddenly, the ensemble burst into a triumphant bass interlude, bringing the piece and the performance to an excellent close.

Afterwards, the audience eagerly complimented Hanson and the ensemble on the performance. Hanson was pleased as well.

"The orchestra showed the joy of playing music," he said. "They related to the audience and the audience responded. The evening was rather complete."

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