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On Friday, one cello filled the vast expanse of Sanders Theatre with music, passion, and drama.
In the second concert of its bicentennial season, the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO) delivered another strong performance under the baton of Dr. James Yannatos. The concert featured one of the most memorable solo performances of the year: soloist Bong Ihn Koh ’08, Harvard’s internationally renowned cellist, in his first appearance as part of the orchestra.
The evening began with a light, carefree mood, thanks to the “Overture to the Great Gatsby” by John H. Harbison ’60. The piece’s jaunty clarinet, saxophone, and piano parts deftly conveyed the cool, foot-tapping breeziness of 1920s ragtime. Its dark, clashing passages poignantly evoked the troubles of Gatsby’s life, as did the lively, often frantic melodies that suggested Gatsby’s extravagant dance parties.
At times, the HRO’s performance of the “Overture” seemed a bit too restrained. The piece was technically sound, but the performers could have had more fun with the jazzy intricacies of the music. It ultimately left the listener yearning for Harbison’s lively rhythms to fill the whole theatre.
But then came the main event. Antonin Dvorak’s “Cello Concerto in B minor,” featuring Koh’s solo performance, was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening. Truly a vessel for the music, Koh moved with the orchestra and with the conductor, his closed eyes suggesting deep emotion and intense concentration etched across his face. Koh moved his arms with fluidity and athletic agility, his fingers nimbly scaling up and down the fingerboard of his cello to produce a rich, deep, and confident sound that swirled upward to the top of Sanders Theatre.
Perhaps one of Koh’s most impressive attributes was his ability to blend cohesively with the orchestra. Koh presented an image to the audience of the cellist as part of a larger organism that is the HRO. As the strings played, he extended his upper body towards them as if trying to immerse his head in the music; as the horns played, he leaned back as if to absorb the sounds of the brass. Koh was clearly aware that the success of the orchestra depended on each of its parts working together—a trait that truly demonstrates his maturity.
Koh followed his performance with an encore, playing a solo that rendered the whole room silent. He played a piece that had an ethereal, eerie sound, accompanying his own cello solo by singing a vocal part. The moment emphasized the fact that Koh is not simply someone playing an instrument, but actually is the instrument himself.
The final piece of the evening was Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55.” The symphony is a narrative depicting the phases of life in four movements. Particularly illustrative was the second movement, “Adagio assai,” which aims for the harmonies and rhythms of a funeral march. The various solos in the wind section evoked the solemn organ part in a funeral mass. Following this somber movement, the orchestra moved easily into the uplifting third movement and finale.
The HRO’s concert was highly successful as a whole, especially given the short rehearsal time between their last concert and this one. The concert itself seemed to be a marathon for the orchestra, and the performers’ exhaustion was apparent by the end. The evening could have benefited by eliminating Harbison’s “Overture,” as it fit less comfortably with the other two pieces and added unnecessary length to the program as a whole.
But Koh’s performance made Dvorak’s “Concerto”—and Friday’s concert—a hard act to follow. Through Koh and the rest of the orchestra, the audience traveled along a wide spectrum of emotion ranging from ecstasy to grief. It was an incredible journey for both the performers and the listeners.
—Crimson reviewer Victoria D. Sung can be reached at email@example.com.
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