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.

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.

NEWBIES WELCOME

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.”

The pretentious, stuffy experts that classical music seems to be associated with are far less desirable to Balliett, who has an offer to join the Civic Orchestra of Chicago upon graduation.

“There’s a lot of people, not necessarily at Harvard, who have a very narrow-minded view, who think that if people don’t know that you’re not supposed to clap between movements then they shouldn’t go to concerts,” Balliett says. “I think that’s ridiculous. You have to ask them, why are you performing? Are you just playing for each other? You could do that in your dorm room—you don’t need to rent Sanders Theater to do it.”

THERE ARE NO CHILDREN HERE

At last Friday’s performance, the entire front section of the Sanders main floor was filled with grown-up folks from the Pierian Foundation, HRO’s alumni support network. In addition to simply coming to the concerts, the Pierians provide funding for the orchestra and help with decision making and logistical planning.

The Foundation takes its name from the Pierian Sodality of 1808—HRO’s original moniker when it was founded almost 200 years ago. Many of the Pierians have season subscriptions, and take pride in coming to every single HRO performance.

David D. Moir (GSA ’93) of Jamaica Plains, for instance, whose wife is the Pierian Foundation’s secretary, says he’s been coming for the last fifteen years to enjoy the music and support the students.

Many among HRO’s dedicated fan-base can make similar claims, but as HRO’s musicians have learned all too well, a small group of devotees can’t fill 1,200 seats.

Collins repeatedly stressed the importance of publicity during his rehearsal-break briefings, recruiting people to put up posters, table outside the Science Center, and sell tickets to friends. Collins, for his part, drove around Boston posting flyers at other colleges, including the Berklee School of Music and the New England Conservatory, where classical music is predictably more popular.

Interest at Harvard itself usually just isn’t enough to fill a concert hall as big as Sanders, he explains, and the bulk of HRO’s audience has been coming from outside the University walls.

Getting to people who don’t usually listen to classical music, orchestra members say, is absolutely crucial, but convincing such outsiders that a two-hour concert is worth their time on a Friday night can be a hard sell.

The evening of last Friday’s concert, Barlow led a small group of HRO musicians onto the balcony above Annenberg to play a short, dramatic song for the freshmen below in order to advertise the show. The students clapped enthusiastically, but the student responsible for selling tickets on the main floor came to rehearsal complaining that she hadn’t sold a single one.

A lot of Harvard students, according to Nathan I. Burke ’05, “wouldn’t go if you paid them.” As it stands, most of the undergrads that come to HRO’s concerts are either friends or relatives of someone who is playing, or members of one of the other classical groups on campus such as the Bach Society, the Mozart Society, or the Collegium Musicum choir.

According to Collins, their first three shows of the year enjoy better attendance, primarily because they are timed to coincide with campus-wide events like junior parents weekend which flood the campus with willing and curious strangers.

The fact is though, HRO members concede, classical music just isn’t that popular among young people anymore, even though Harvard is considered to be relatively cultured.

“This is definitely not the hey-day of classical music,” says James P. Ferus ’07 of the Bach Society Orchestra. “It’s something you can’t avoid, though there are still many dedicated people and musicians.”

For reference, while just under 600 Harvard students list the band Radiohead among their “favorite music” on thefacebook.com, Mozart and Beethoven each show up fewer than 200 times.

And those are just the obvious ones. Unless diehard classical fans are simply less likely to use thefacebook.com or publicly announce their interest, they appear to make up less than about 5 percent of the Harvard population. No matter how many posters they put up, HRO members know, chances are that the unconverted won’t be attending unless they’re there to support their friends or hear a piece they learned about in a Core class.

GOING OUT OF STYLE?

It wasn’t always such a struggle to stir up interest, according to HRO conductor James Yannatos, who has been leading then orchestra for 41 years. His musicians lovingly call him “Dr. Y.”

“This was the thing to do,” he says. “We’d give a Beethoven’s 9th at Symphony Hall, and everybody came across the river. The whole place was packed.”

In the early 1970s, he remembers, the orchestra played a midnight concert which also drew a sell-out crowd full of undergrads.

“I get the sense that classical music is less important, and that’s really tragic to me,” he says. “There’s so many things now really vying for the time and for the audience, and sometimes we really feel like we’re having some difficulty.”

According to Balliett, the problem does not rest exclusively on the shoulders of the disinterested audience—classical musicians who resist modernization should share the blame. Traditionalists have stigmatized modern orchestral music, he says, leaving only a limited canon of work that classical groups can choose from.

“Classical music concerts now are basically like museums,” Balliett says. Since most people listening already have some idea of what Beethoven’s 5th Symphony “should” sound like, the performance becomes about the interpretation, not the piece itself.

People who aren’t familiar with the technical aspects of classical music can’t quite engage on that level, Balliett says, because all competent orchestras playing a given piece will sound roughly the same to the untrained ear.

When it comes to expertise, Yannatos says, the undergraduate population at Harvard is somewhat polarized—with a large portion completely unversed in classical music and the other somehow involved in playing it.

In other words, while pop music has fans among the youth, classical only has practitioners, which renders the scene rather insular and arguably stagnant.

Almost a third of every graduating class has been in some way involved in a classical music group in high school, Yannatos says, and it’s the other two thirds don’t know anything. Those are the ones that Balliett and his cohorts are trying so hard to win over.

It’s not just HRO, of course—other classical groups have similar difficulty getting to them.

“You generally know ahead of time how much effort you have to put into publicity,” says Emily C. Zazulia ’06 from the Collegium Musicum choir. “We did the Monteverdi ‘Vespers’ with a full orchestra about a month ago, and we knew the piece itself wasn’t going to sell on campus. Boston, though, has such a flourishing early music scene, so we really pushed off-campus publicity.”

Special guests help, HRO members say, and partly for this reason, last Friday’s concert featured two rather high-profile female vocalists to accompany the orchestra. For the second piece of the night, Yannatos took the podium and conducted Blauvelt’s “Pishi,” a melancholy number with Paula Murrihy, an Irish mezzo-soprano and a recent graduate of the New England Conservatory. The piece, sung in Russian, began with an ominously dissonant moan from the orchestra, which swelled to climax as Murrihy sang her despondent first lines.

THE MAN WHO SAW IT ALL

Yannatos, wearing a tuxedo instead of his usual orange shirt and brown vest, conducted furiously from the podium, his concentration visible and his movements powerful. During rehearsals, his usually soft voice was often replaced by a sharp, angry bark as he pushed his orchestra to perfection.

“Everything one notch down!” he said once as the Orchestra finished a take of the Blauvelt. “I know it’s very seductive music, and you all want to schmaltz it, but you can’t.” Several times, Yannatos would stop the orchestra by tapping his baton on the music stand and shout the name of an offending instrument (“Bassoon!”) before continuing.

No one holds the tough criticism against him, though, as Yannatos is uniformly considered the heart and soul of the orchestra by virtue of the many years he has spent developing it. A short, unassuming man with a gentle speaking voice, the 76-year-old is extremely tender with his musicians, giving them individual attention and enthusiastically chatting with them during rehearsal breaks.

He got his start with HRO in 1964, when the student members of the orchestra elected him out of a lineup of six short-list candidates, all of whom had conducted for them in a role-reversal audition process. The faculty ratified the selection, and Yannatos has been teaching classes in the music department ever since.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Yannatos started his career in music early, already composing his own material at 11 years old. The only other career he ever considered was professional baseball, but that dream didn’t make it past the seventh grade. Every morning, Yannatos recalls, he would wake up at dawn to practice his instrument so that he could play ball in the schoolyard after class. He attended the Manhattan School of Music, and started his undergraduate career at Syracuse before transferring to the music department at Yale. He has since worked in a number of orchestras, countless festivals, and taught in several collegiate music programs.

His own compositions, which his students say are stylistically modern and experimental, often make their way into HRO’s concerts, and, over the course of the last 40 years, the orchestra has premiered many of his works. During that time, Yannatos has seen the organization through thick and thin, triumphantly leading during the good years and nursing it to health during draughts.

“We started out with a bang, because we played really difficult stuff and everybody was tremendously enthusiastic,” Yannatos says. “It was wonderful. And then the Vietnam thing just sort of depleted everything, the wind got knocked out and the kids were much more interested in protesting than playing.”

Yannatos rebuilt the orchestra through the 1970s and by the mid-’80s, it was back in shape. Today, it is unquestionably the ascendant orchestral group on campus despite the competition from groups like the Bach Society.

“The Bach-Soc started about ten years before I came in, and part of it was because there were a lot of HRO kids who weren’t happy,” he says. “The kids took it upon themselves to organize this smaller orchestra, and then the Mozart Society happened when some kids came to me who did not make HRO, didn’t want to play in the Bach-Soc, and wanted to be in an orchestra.”

Bach-Soc expanded beyond its roots in chamber music, and for a time considered itself the most exclusive orchestra at Harvard, while the Mozart Society served as something of a talent feeding ground for HRO, according to Yannatos.

“There’s always a little bit of that competitive edge,” he says, “At one point Bach-Soc thought of themselves as a very elitist group, and at a certain point, that changed, because they were not elitist by any means. The premiere orchestra was the Harvard-Radcliffe orchestra and that was it. Everybody knew that.”

Today, despite the downturn in prominence, the HRO is supremely respected by national music critics and Harvard administrators alike. Yannatos recalls a year when the orchestra was short on horn players, and appealed to the admissions office for help recruiting one. Officials there responded sympathetically, saying that a “jewel like the orchestra” could not be left without a horn and promptly accepted someone who fit the bill.

JOINING A COMMUNITY

According to Collins, who campaigned for president under a platform of making HRO more social, the orchestra has a unique, constantly evolving dynamic uncommon to most professional-class classical groups. Everybody is friends with each other, Collins says, and orchestra members usually hang out together after rehearsals, either watching movies or going to the Kong as a massive group.

Even during rehearsals—the time Collins says is reserved for serious playing—the trombone section chatters incessantly, and the bolder members of the orchestra will occasionally call out jokes during interruptions.

“That’s the unique thing about a college orchestra,” Balliett says. “At a conservatory, it’s just part of your life, and you get kind of blasé about it.”

In years past, interaction didn’t move much past the occasional hello on the way to one’s chair, but Collins set out to change all that. He is currently planning a beach party for May, and the post-rehearsal get-togethers are often hosted in his room.

“It goes beyond just kind the stiff, classical outlook on things,” Collins says. “We’ll laugh at things, and we’ll have a good time. We’re pretty serious during rehearsals, but people can really get into it. A lot of people on HRO will hang out together, party together, and there is a kind of solidarity within the group.”

Collins is thrilled about the newfound camaraderie, and his enthusiasm appears to be reciprocated—every time he starts his mid-rehearsal speech, the orchestra shouts “Hi Jimbo!” in unison. Although he has been in HRO since the beginning of freshman year, his musical career at Harvard began with a smattering of posters calling for hip young gunslingers to join him in a rock band—pretty unorthodox for a guy who would later become president of the biggest classical group on campus.

CURTAINS FALL

If nowhere else, the bond between the musicians is evident in their playing, and as they launched into the bleak but gorgeous “Four Last Songs” by Strauss with Lucy Shelton singing soprano, the audience could only look on with admiration. The music, for all its complexities, sounded deceptively effortless.

Although it wasn’t visible from the stage, first violinist Dickerman has developed a light bruise on her neck where she holds her instrument—an affliction that appears to plague at least half the string section. Many of them practice for hours a day in the week before a major concert, although their busy Harvard schedules put them at an inherent disadvantage in comparison to the pre-professionals enrolled in conservatories.

Only a handful of HRO members go on to careers in music every year, Yannatos says, and most people put the orchestra second to their academics.

“I think, largely, HRO is something people do on the side,” says Jae Y. Kim ’05, who shares the first violin seat with Dickerman.

Still, they take their music extremely seriously, as the behemoth Hindemith symphony they play after the intermission attests. The audience erupted into a standing ovation as the last note rang out, and after several rounds of bowing, the orchestra left the stage. Collins says he was thrilled with the performance, adding with a smile that, despite the initial stumbles, he was never really worried.

They always pull it together one way or another, he says, even if it’s not until the week before.

It seems like HRO has quite a bit in common with the average Harvard student after all. Even if they do know more about classical music than those of us who prefer Biggie to Bach.

—Staff writer Leon Neyfakh can be reached at neyfakh@fas.harvard.edu.

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