HRO Comes Alive

HRO aims to revitalize Harvard's classical music community in the face of the scene's declining popularity

Matthew R. Schrimpf

45 Mt. Auburn St. came alive last Saturday when James F. Collins ’07 and his fellow DJs threw “Signs” by Snoop Dogg and Justin Timberlake onto the stereo. The infectious hook filled the wooden house and the crowd of kids slumming by the punchbowl finally poured into the main hall to dance.

Bizarrely, a muted DVD of “Lawrence of Arabia” was being projected onto the ceiling, and a pair of fog machines blew a thick haze onto the floor. The punch flowed, the skirts flew, and the place filled up as Notorious B.I.G’s “Juicy” erupted from the speakers.

Not four hours earlier, everyone in the room had been on the Sanders Theatre stage wearing tuxedos and evening gowns, playing Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture to ‘Candide’” as the 100-piece Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO).

DJ Collins, their president, had stood solemnly at the back of the stage and played the timpani.

It was the orchestra’s last performance of the year. Known as “The Big Dance” among HRO members, it capped their four-concert season, seeing off the 21 graduating seniors—most of whom will never again play in a venue as majestic as Sanders.

Until early last week, with only three rehearsals to go, many of the musicians weren’t sure they’d be able to pull it off. The set was a challenging, esoteric one, including a relatively obscure symphony by Paul Hindemith and two shorter pieces by Blauvelt and Strauss featuring guest vocalists from the Boston area.

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The week before the show saw the orchestra struggling to play softly so as not to overpower the singers, and up until the last rehearsal, individuals were still missing cues and falling behind. Moreover, nothing on the bill was popular or famous enough to suggest a big draw—there was no Mozart or Beethoven, not even a Bach—so selling tickets to an undergraduate population with a predominantly cursory interest in classical music would be tough going.

HRO’s last concert in Sanders was almost sold-out thanks to a popular Brahms piece and a special guest appearance by widely known violin prodigy Stefan P. Jackiw ’07, but this one, everyone knew, would not enjoy such success.

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Indeed, when the lights fell at last Friday’s concert, the seats of Sanders were only about half-full. As the audience quieted, the musicians filed in, took their seats on the stage, and prepared to warm up their instruments. Anna L. Dickerman ’05, first violin for the evening, walked to her chair by the conductor’s platform to enthusiastic applause.

LaMont J. Barlow ’05, the assistant conductor presiding over the first piece of the night, came in a second later, tapping his baton on the music stand in front of him and launching the orchestra into Bernstein’s playful “Overture to ‘Candide’.”

The bows in the string section flew up and down in impeccable unison, while the trombonists in the back moved their slides to and fro. Barlow, who is proficient on piano, every woodwind, and a few brass and string instruments, stood with his feet akimbo, energetically waving his arms but keeping his entire lower half still as a rock. To the amateur eye, most of the orchestra seemed to hardly look his way the entire time, but years of practice have simply taught them to watch without looking.

All together, it was an impressive display of carefully executed grace and passion—and you didn’t have to understand much about classical theory to be affected by the sight.

In fact, HRO members say they prefer audience members who aren’t familiar with classical music. The clueless newbie—the one that claps between movements and doesn’t know the difference between Bartok and Vivaldi—is their favorite kind of audience.

“I would rather be playing for the people who are amazed by it,” says bassoonist Brad R. Balliett ’05. “My ideal audience member would be someone who doesn’t necessarily know very much about classical music but is excited about it, and listening to it very attentively to get all the details. Those are the people who are going to be moved by it.”

Sadly, HRO members say, if someone has grown up around exclusively pop music, the whole idea of classical can seem intimidating and alien. Members of HRO, collectively indistinguishable from their “normal” classmates except for their devotion to classical music, insist that such fears should be shed. The music, they plead, should not be thought of as academic but visceral—appealing for the same reasons as, say, something like “Signs.”