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There are two theories concerning the function of a college orchestra. Advocates of the first maintain that the orchestra is organized solely for the pleasure and education of its members, and that any activities not in keeping with these goals cannot be tolerated. The other theory states that the orchestra has a duty to perform for the college community--to play the best music in the best way--and that all other considerations are secondary.
Russell Stanger's first season with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra indicates that the second notion will be the prevailing one in these parts for some time to come. His closing concert last Friday exemplified that kind of thing he has been doing all year long. The program was not a typical college program, the performance was not a typical college performance, and Stanger is certainly not a typical college conductor.
Conventional student concerts usually include a fast, land overture, an isolated movement from an isolated symphony, a Stephen Foster medley, and a waltz by Johann Strauss. The inevitable "small but enthusiastic" audience consists of members of the faculty, parents of the performers, and a handful of erstwhile Babbitts searching for culture.
But the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra played a Bach concert, symphonics by Mozart and Piston, and an orchestral tour de force by Richard Wagner. And the audience was one of music lovers--people who came to Sanders Theatre for an evening of aesthetic enjoyment, and got it.
Even more startling than the choice of music is the caliber of the musicians. Blessed with a concert master from the Minneapolis Symphony, Deno Geanakopolos 5G, the organization (particularly the string choir) played consistently well all year long and with precision and richness of tone. Even that problem child of the orchestra, the horn section, improved steadily and reached its peak in Friday's performance of Siegfried's Rhine Journey.
Some people may disapprove of Stanger's tactile. Acting on the principle that good music deserves a good performance, he has not confined himself to Harvard-Radcliffe material. Non-Cambridge talent constitutes an important part of the organization, and nearly all the trombone players are conservatory students. He has even procured the services of a professional violinist (Ruth Posselt) to play Hindemith's Violin Concerto for the second concert.
The twenty-six year old conductor still has a lot to learn. His interpretations of Haydn and Mozart were much too heavy-handed; and his readings of the Romantic composers were frequently muddy because of his inability to sustain the melodic line. However, Stanger exhibited a firm grasp of the modern idiom, and his performances of three recent compositions were the highlights of the season.
Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony was one of the orchestra's finest achievements, and their newly-released recording compares quite favorably with the standard Stockowski version. In the Hindemith Concerto, Stanger was not at all bothered by the many complexities of rhythm and harmony which prevail throughout. The same was true of his performance of Piston's Third Symphony. This work, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, is a tough nut to crack. Although not as cerebral as some of the Harvard professor's other creations, it still provides pitfalls for conductor and listener alike. Nevertheless, Piston himself called the performance a "miracle," and the cheering, foot-stamping audience must have thought so too.
Of course the orchestra is still far from perfect. Less than a dozen rehearsals per concert are really not enough for the kind of music Stanger chooses to present. But the players have been willing to work hard, and they take their music seriously. They have probably inspired Mr. Stanger as much as he has inspired them. And with this kind of inner harmony, one can predict that the past season marks the beginning of a new era for the organization. --lower case
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