Orchestra dazzles with pops in rainy opener

By
Monday, September 15, 2008

Inclement weather and minimal rehearsal time did not stop the Brown University Orchestra from delivering an exciting program of film and pops music to a packed Sayles Hall on Friday. Slated to be the group’s first-ever outdoor performance, the season opener was moved inside due to a light drizzle.

Although conductor Paul Phillips, a senior lecturer in music, announced that the orchestra had only rehearsed for three days, one wouldn’t have known it from the musicians’ capable playing.

The hour-long concert began with two pieces by John Williams, perhaps the most successful composer in the history of film. A medley from the iconic “The Empire Strikes Back” was a fitting opener, though some of the louder passages seemed to have been rehearsed with an outdoor setting in mind. With its memorable themes and sweeping orchestrations, music from “Star Wars” never fails to elicit a smile from the listener.

The other Williams piece on the program was the “Harry Potter Symphonic Suite,” a more recent film score that sounded both magical and menacing. Unfortunately, the opening theme was played on the piano rather than the less common celesta, a keyboard-operated instrument with bell-like tone, as heard in the movie.

Next was Howard Shore’s “Symphonic Suite from Lord of the Rings,” featuring music from the trilogy’s first film. A prime function of soundtracks is to stir emotion in viewers, and at this Shore is a master. Combining grand orchestral gestures, percussive battle music, an idyllic middle section and even comical moments, the piece was a highlight of the evening.

Phillips gave the orchestra a workout with the concert’s last cinematic piece, “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The composer, Klaus Badelt, merged swashbuckling pirate melodies with a modern action score for the first film in Disney’s lucrative franchise.

The film music was followed by a piece from the classical repretoire, Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 “Overture to Candide.” Uncommon rhythms, rapid glissandos and a rollicking tempo make the work challenging to play, but the orchestra gave a solid rendition.

“Brunoniana,” a 1940s arrangement of Brown songs by acclaimed pops composer Leroy Anderson, concluded the concert. Featuring marches, a waltz and a short section imitating a fife and drum band, this artifact from the University’s heritage deserves to be heard more often.

The orchestra had a successful season last year, culminating in its stunning May performance of Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 6.” Considering the quality of their playing after only three days of rehearsal, the upcoming season promises to be just as memorable. Hopefully, the pops concert will become an annual tradition, and next year, nature will cooperate.