This should be another good year for the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. The season's opening concert last Thursday demonstrated again that there is a group of enthusiastic, intelligent young musicians in the University community who like to play and who fear nothing. The performances, although uneven, were definitely higher than the usual student level, and there were moments of real brilliance. Russell Stanger and Aaron Copland shared the conductor's duties, an innovation which was not totally successful.
The least satisfying part of the program was Mozart's Symphonic Concertante for Wind Quartet and small orchestra, a graceful work which an orchestra cannot get across to the listener unless it plays with precision and delicacy. Heaviness in the string section and poor balance between soloists and orchestra resulted in a performance of this masterpiece that sagged badly at times. The soloists, however, did an excellent job, and Aaron Johnson's clean, rich clarinet tone was outstanding. Russell Stanger, beginning his second season with the orchestra, conducted the work in the first two movements as if it were by Richard Strauss. Only in the last movement did conductor, orchestra, and soloists loosen up enough to capture some of the Mozartian good-humor that makes this piece a perennial favorite.
Aaron Copland is a much better composer than conductor. On the podium he seemed awkward and uncertain, and I don't know how the orchestra was ever able to follow his obscure beat. But his music, fresh and invigorating, gave ample proof that he is one of the five or six really significant composers in the United States today. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Copland concerns himself with melodies per se; his compositions usually contain several good tunes, but not much depth of feeling.
He conducted first his simple background music for "Our Town" which is one of the most effective scores ever written for an American movie. The appealing thematic material and clear orchestration provide a vivid tone-picture of the typical New England town represented in the original Thornton Wilder play.
"An Outdoor Overture," written in 1938 for New York's High School of Music and Arts, is about four minutes too long. The middle section lags considerably, and perhaps Mr. Copland will someday see fit to tighten up this otherwise intriguing composition. The orchestra, for the most part, did full justice to the music. Only the brass section, no longer bolstered by Conservatory students, seemed rather weak; it frequently played too loud, and was not always on key.
Stanger returned after intermission to conduct Franck's D Minor Symphony. This old favorite offers numerous interpretative problems, most of which the young conductor solved adequately. He ignored some of the details--thus sparing the audience from the excessive chromatics in melody and harmony which can make the music tedious--and gave a broad, sweeping rendition, powerfully conceived and delivered. However, this de-emphasis of detail sank to downright sloppiness in the second movement. Intonation was foul, pick-ups inaccurate, and the melodic line sounded jerky.
No orchestra can play its best in a half-empty concert hall. The many vacant seats in Sanders Theatre would dampen anyone's spirits, and it was most unfortunate that the H.-R. O. had to compete last week with hour exams. Since the group this year is composed entirely of Harvard-Radcliffe talent, local support is more important than ever. Next month's concert will feature Handel's "Messiah" and both music and musicians deserve a full house.