Rensselaer Orchestra hits the right notes

NICHOLAS DEMAISON CONDUCTS the Rensselaer Orchestra during their first concert within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Despite the change in management, the orchestra delivered a diverse and robust performance.

It was altogether, quite fitting that the newly-reformed Rensselaer Orchestra’s first concert took place on a chilly, gray afternoon, considering the thematic elements of the music programmed.

The orchestra, which was formerly a part of the Rensselaer Music Association, is now under the School of Humanities, Arts, and Sciences here at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The performance was the first for the newly re-formed orchestra, and the first performance conducted by Nicholas DeMaison.

The repertoire for the performance was rather varied—ranging from jarring in Tenney’s “Swell Piece No. 1,” to grand in Beethoven’s “Coriolan Overture,” to an oxymoronic writhing calm in “Interdependence” from Oliveros’s Meditation No. 3.

The concert was finished off with a melodious interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, or the “Little Russian.” The event got off to a quiet, almost hesitant start, with the lights dimmed low. As the piece grew in complexity into a cacophony of sound, the electronic reverberation grew organically with the music, before the piece morphed into the “Coriolan Overture.” The grand tones swirled through the air, evocating visions of the tale of victory, conflict, and finally, death.

The lights dimmed again as the orchestra plunged into Oliveros’s Meditation, with chords flying between sections, swooping glissandos and hard, firm staccatos.

The two atonal pieces created something akin to a cocoon of sound, encapsulating Beethoven’s work, similar to the cocoon that the concert hall provided in comparison to the wind and snow that fell outside. The first three pieces were played seamlessly together as one, with reverberating electronics and mood lighting adding an ethereal quality to Tenney’s and Oliveros’s works.

Despite full and colorful notes, however, there was a fair share of fuzzy parts. Balance was often an issue, with the strings often being completely overwhelmed by the brass, and the woodwinds often had difficulty keeping up with the rest of the musicians, volume-wise. High notes were often squirrely, and some parts of the pieces were occasionally bereft of coordination inside and between sections. The first half of the concert ended calmly.

One might wonder if, despite its reputation as one of the most acoustically perfect concert halls in North America, some of the issues were caused by position within the hall itself. Sound from the strings may have been overpowered by the sound of the brass reflecting off the curved ceiling of the side balcony where I was sitting, and it may have been further blocked for those sitting in the orchestra level by virtue of the brass being in the back.

Whatever difficulties occurred in the first half, however, began to disappear by the end of the intermission.

Perhaps it was the unconventional nature of the structure of the concert, or simply nerves, but the Rensselaer Orchestra’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s second was nothing if not at least decent.

True, some of the problems that showed in the first half reappeared in the second, but they were minor, at best.

The Russian part of the “Little Russian” symphony was fairly evident during the night’s performance—both inside the concert hall and out. As frigid blasts of air and a dusting of snow coated the ground outside, the orchestra’s playing similarly colored the soundscape in the hall. Tones were rich and full, with thick blasts from the brass and light trills from the violins. Balance and tempo, though, were occasionally an issue, the latter especially during syncopated parts.

All in all, however, taking into consideration the level of the orchestra and the current status of the arts at the Institute, it was a good performance.

As always, there are places where improvements could be made, but as of now, I am looking forward to the Rensselaer Orchestra’s joint concert with the Concert Choir on December 15 at 3 pm.