Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Saturday night, Lang Concert Hall was removed from suburban Philadelphia and transported to 19th-century Vienna. Under the direction of John Alston, the Swarthmore College Orchestra and Chorus came together to present a magical performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. The concert left its spectators in awe of the talents of the composer and the performers.
A concerto for piano, violin, and cello, with the rest of the orchestra playing in support, came before the main event. Colin Palmer ’06 played piano, Serena Le ’07 handled the violin with grace and skill, and Oliver Hsu ’03 came back to Swarthmore to play cello. Both of the string players performed without music. The concerto got off to a fast start with several timpani rolls from Mark Skaden ’08 and traversed all sorts of musical styles in its 35 minute duration. Palmer’s fast fingers were on display more than once and Le and Hsu showed a remarkable feel for their instruments and the piece as the lead line often passed seamlessly between their two instruments. After the performance, Alston presented the three main instrumentalists with flowers and the crowd’s enthusiastic clapping forced two encores.
The piano was then moved off to the side and preparations were made for main performance. Alston introduced the piece by asking the crowd to place themselves inside the concert hall in Vienna where the symphony was performed for the first time. He then took the crowd through the symphony, matching each section with its representation in Beethoven’s worldview. Before the 9th, symphonies tended to be dominated by the strings, with the horns only used to provide harmony. Alston described how Beethoven expressed his dreams of a world where commoners (such as musicians) would exist on the same level as kings and the upper class. The horn section attempts to take over the lead on several occasions only to be rebuffed by the strings until finally, in the 4th movement, the famous “Ode to Joy” theme comes first from the horns and is then adopted by the strings. The chorus, silent
throughout the first three movements, comes in now and makes the finale even greater. The fourth movement symbolizes the wonderful possibility of all people living together in harmony, and Alston asked the crowd to feed off of the energy of the music and do one thing to better somebody else’s life in the near future.
All of this would have meant little had the orchestra not brought life to Alston’s words, but they proved their conductor right and more, delivering a fine performance. Through the “grumpiness” (as Alston described it) of the first movement, the wildness of the second movement, which featured Skaden prominently, the beauty of the third movement, and the majesty of the fourth, the orchestra played with impressive technical accuracy and moving emotion. The chorus, led by soprano Elisabeth Stevens, mezzo-soprano Phyllis Tritto, tenor Scott McCoy and baritone Todd Thomas, delivered the poetry of Friedrich von Schiller in its original German to great effect.
After the performance, Alston was presented with a gift from the orchestra recognizing his energy and dedication.
Alston served as interim conductor of the College Orchestra for the fall semester while the Department of Music and Dance engaged in a search process to find a new conductor to replace Daniel Wachs who left after the spring semester. Check out the Gazette’s coverage of the new hire in the archives at: http://www.swatdaily.org/archive/fall_2004/20041202.html#n2. Richard Fletcher will take over as permanent conductor next semester, and he will have a tough act to follow. Those who were at Saturday’s performance will not soon forget it.