Colby orchestra mixes innovation with tradition in season opener

This weekend, the Colby Symphony Orchestra (CSO) opened their spring season with a diverse and exciting program filled with virtuosity, passion, and technology.  Despite the wintry weather—with the highs for the day only reaching single digits—Lorimer Chapel was packed with a full audience for the Saturday night concert. Led by conductor Jinwook Park, the CSO brought energy and refinement to a program that spanned both modern and traditional works. Featuring the Barber Violin Concerto with soloist Eunae Koh, the world premiere of Colby Professor Jon Hallstrom’s original computer music composition, and the classical Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, this concert offered the audience a unique and spectacular perspective to the traditional orchestra concert.

The program opened with the demanding violin concerto by Samuel Barber, played by guest soloist Eunae Koh.  Born in South Korea, Koh started studying violin at a young age at the Korean National University pre-college program. She attended the Yewon School, a middle school for the arts, and then the Seoul Arts High School, and graduated as the valedictorian from Seoul National University.  Throughout her education, Kohn participated in many prestigious music festivals and masterclasses, received several awards for her performance, and won many national competitions for South Korea. Koh also has an extensive solo career, having played Paganini, Brahms, Sibelius, Mendelssohn, and other works with professional orchestras. Koh is now working on her Master’s Degree at the New England Conservatory, and playing in the Boston area.  A talented violinist and a seasoned soloist, Koh took on the Barber Violin Concerto with confidence and ease despite the tricky ensemble challenges and the extreme technical demand.

The Barber Concerto begins with lush string and reassuring harmonies that linger just on the edge of dissonance, enchanting the audience with its theme even as a darker undertone looms underneath. The first movement gradually works itself up into fits of ominous virtuosity in the solo that clash with the ferocity of the orchestra, then resolves unexpectedly to the sweeping sentimentality of the theme for a poignantly touching moment.  After a stimulating first movement, the concerto softens into a nostalgic slow movement that presents delicate solos in the winds and sweeping melodies in the strings.  Still occasionally interrupted by moments of conflict, the rhapsodic middle movement draws to an end with its sweetly inspired melody. As a contemporary work, composed in the mid twentieth century, the concerto reflects the theoretical experimentation happening in music at the time. Barber intersperses the mostly traditional harmony with moments of dissonance that would not be found in earlier musical style, creating contrasting moments. Bursting into the third movement, Barber abandons the lyricism of the rest of the piece for a fireworks display of sound. Flying through alternating meters, odd rhythms, and difficult harmonies, Barber gives the soloist a technical workout with lightning-fast notes running nonstop from start to explosive finish.  Koh handled the challenges of the Barber with ease, soaring through the lyricism with a refined tone and impressively never faltering at her exhausting tempo in the
last movement. 

After exploring the contemporary style of the Barber, the orchestra moved on to something even more modern: a new composition by current Colby Associate Music Professor Jon Hallstrom. Titled “Scraps Adrift,” the piece was performed by the orchestra together with computer music effects played in real time by Hallstrom. The composition opened with an ethereal sustained note in all of the strings, holding the pitch while a computer-generated sound swept over it, seeming to echo the notes while introducing ghostly others. The composition explored subtle changes in pitch and tonality, building in tension and volume throughout the strings and computer.  Finally reaching a crescendo, the instruments broke into a spirited rhythmic section, passing rhythms and motives between the strings in a fugue-like manner.  Hallstrom developed the energetic middle section through methods of modern composition, interspersing it with brief moments where the opening material returned to usher in a calm moment in the stormy content.  After working towards a final moment of intensity, a computer-generated sound washed over the orchestra, quieting the strings for a true return of the exposition. The hush made way for an enchanting solo by principal cellist Steve Witkin, before slowly falling silent beneath the last few waves of
computer sound.

After a brief intermission, the orchestra concluded its concert with the early Romantic era “Reformation” Symphony by Felix Mendelssohn for a traditional end to an innovative and technical concert. A well-known work featuring many well-known themes, the symphony begins with a solemn but reassuring melody in the lower orchestra that fades into Mendelssohn’s magical use of a sacred motive in the violins. Here, the strings burst into action with dramatic running notes, driving the orchestra through a fiery opening that, while interrupted by the return of the exposition, concludes the movement with a high-octane end. The second movement, a playful scherzo, provided a refreshing contrast, with melodic filigree in the strings underscoring a dancing theme in the winds.  Following the scherzo—movements flipped from their usual order—was the slow third movement, a grave but beautiful piece featuring the violins. Without stopping, the third transitioned into the fourth with a lyrical chorale in the winds.  As the rest of the orchestra slowly joined in, the sacred character transitioned into an energetically triumphant finale.  With spirited playing and refined interpretation, the orchestra took on a joyful melody that raced the audience to the end and a standing ovation.

Through modern and older repertoire, the Colby Symphony Orchestra performed an exciting concert of innovation and tradition.  The CSO’s next concert is on April 29 and 30 at 7:30 p.m.