HRO Reaches New Heights

Student orchestra takes on challenging pieces with unprecedented skill and flair

This past Saturday, it became easy to forget that the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO) is a student orchestra. In a stunning concert to raise funds for their upcoming Cuba tour, HRO delivered an ambitious selection of works that not only showcased three challenging Russian classics, but also allowed them to demonstrate their virtuosic grasp on the dynamics and emotions of even the most challenging classical music.

The night opened with Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture,” conducted by Nicolas A. Olarte-Hayes ’11, the Assistant Conductor of the HRO. Gentle, mournful melodies from the upper strings paired with ominous and darkly rich strains from the lower strings opened the song which then exploded into an energetic accelerando accentuated by the brilliant wind section and crisp, precise percussion.

A “Fantasy Overture,” Tchaikovsky’s exquisite “Romeo and Juliet” is inspired by the famous Shakespeare play of the same name, and indeed the structure of the piece mirrors the plot of the original Shakespeare. After the first powerful build-up and climax, the orchestra introduced the passionate “love theme,” a timeless orchestral motif. This theme returns throughout the piece, and illustrates the rise and fall of Romeo and Juliet’s courtship from the consummation of their love through marriage to their eventual suicide. Especially impressive were the yearning solos in the warm cello section and the impeccable timing of cymbal crashes and timpani rolls that added to the overall thrill and tension of the piece.

Following the Tchaikovsky, HRO performed a challenging and complex piece—Igor Stravinsky’s the “Firebird Suite”—under the baton of Maestro Federico Cortese. The piece opens with enigmatic scales played by the strings and an abrasive part in the low brass section before the lyrical playing of a lone oboe truly unearths the piece’s beauty. The solos in the suite range widely, including the ethereal sounds of the piccolo and flute; the swift and meticulous xylophone, the fast-paced pizzicato of the bass, the otherworldly melodious quality of the harp, and the full depth of the cello. The strength of the solos paired with the musical accuracy of the entire ensemble made for a successful performance, illustrating HRO’s ability to capture vivid and vibrant dynamics and nuances even in more difficult pieces. The piece ends with a regal flash of fiery sound, showcasing the flawless and energetic playing of the orchestra.

Yet HRO had even more in store for the sold-out audience that night as the true highlight of the concert came after the intermission with a refreshing interpretation of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 performed by Damon Meng ’13, also a Crimson business editor. There was a fierce interplay between the powerful brass and interruptive chords in the orchestra, which provided a breathtaking background against the relentless chords of the solo piano. Meng exuded a commanding stage presence, doing the piece both musical and theatrical justice as he swayed with the music, his hands sweeping across the keys in a blurry flash. While the first movement took the audience by storm with its dramatic flair, the following movement presented a softer reprieve—the strings played a soft, tender pizzicato as a gentler theme was passed on from the flute to the piano to the woodwinds to a cello quartet. Meng seemed to tease the audience with light, quick piano interjections. Finally, the concerto came to a close with Meng’s vigorous, incredibly fast-paced, and rhythmic piano riding the waves of the orchestra’s full sound. After the orchestra’s flawless execution of the infamously difficult ending of this concerto, the audience responded with a standing ovation followed by a shocking two encore performances: Franz Liszt’s “Liebesträume No. 3” and the “Rondo alla Turca” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, transposed by Arcadi Volodos.

Overall, the concert was a night celebrating the talent of Harvard’s own student body and the glory of an orchestra that was not only presenting some of its finest repertoire, but also preparing to perform in Cuba this summer. Regardless of location, HRO puts on a show that is not to be missed.

­—Staff writer Soyoung Kim can be reached at soyoungkim@college.harvard.edu.

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