The Brown University Orchestra and Chorus joined forces with the Providence College Cantori and Festival Chorus to pay tribute to President Ruth Simmons, who will be stepping down at the end of the academic year. Performing in front of a sold-out crowd of over 1,900 people Saturday night, the orchestra and choruses took on Beethoven's seminal ninth symphony, one of the most influential and widely recognized pieces of Western music.
As the familiar strain of "Ode to Joy" from the symphony's fourth movement reverberated through the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Providence, it was clear that Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor was the perfect selection to celebrate a woman whose impact on the University has been so profound.
The performance, billed as "A Joyful Tribute to President Ruth J. Simmons," was a triumphant culmination of weeks of hard work on the part of the orchestra and choruses under the conductorship of Paul Phillips, Brown's director of orchestras and chamber music.
The performance was, indeed, an expression of joy. "It brought lots of people together who don't often have the chance to collaborate — students and faculty from Brown, Providence College and (the Rhode Island School of Design) — and gave all of us a very joyful experience," said Phillips, who has been eager to perform a work he describes as "the ‘Mount Everest' of Western music."
And it was perhaps the performance's evident sense of passionate commitment and joyful collaboration that best characterizes President Simmons' tenure as the head of the University.
"It really was just an exhilarating experience, and it was great to be able to play for Ruth and honor the amazing impact that she has had on Brown and on all of our lives," said principal cellist Saul Richmond-Rakerd '13. "It was an experience I don't think I will ever forget."
After a touching introduction by Chair of the Music Department James Baker and speeches from notable members of the community, including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., the concert opened with a powerful rendition of Giuseppe Verdi's overture to "La Forza del Destino" — the same overture that opened the concert for President Simmon's inauguration 11 years ago. This was followed by Johannes Brahms' "Fest und Gedenksprüche," and the first half of the concert concluded with an ethereal performance of Anton Bruckner's "Motets" before breaking for a brief intermission.
The performance resumed with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The venue was particularly well-suited to fully capture the magnitude of the piece. Phillips called it "a superb concert hall — the finest in Rhode Island and one of the best in New England."
The superior acoustics of the auditorium showcased the impressive solos by soprano Jane Shivick, mezzo-soprano Alexandra Dietrich, tenor Jeffrey Hartman and baritone Craig Verm, as well as the flawless execution of the orchestra and chorus members.
"It's a big change from our usual venue in Sayles Hall and was awesome to have a sold-out audience," said violinist Brooke Camarda '13. "We often struggle just to fill up Sayles, so that was pretty exciting."
"It was amazing," said wide-eyed audience member Elizabeth Kelley '13, a Herald contributing writer, after the final bow. "It literally gave me goosebumps."
The performance also benefitted several local music organizations, who received complementary tickets. "A major goal of our project was to make the experience of a live performance of Beethoven's Ninth available to young people," Baker said. Among the recipient organizations were Community MusicWorks, The Met School, BASICS after-school music program, Nathan Bishop Middle School, Bristol Community String Project, Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts and Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra and Music School, he said.
Though the concert was billed as a farewell tribute, the performance felt more like a celebration of a truly remarkable woman — a woman whose influence, like that of the symphony itself, will enrich generations to come with its enduring legacy.