REVIEW: Oberlin Triumphs in NYC

There’s nothing like playing to a full house at Carnegie Hall. Whether you’re Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, The Beatles, or Joe Walsh and the James Gang, it’s a special thrill and an unparalleled showcase opportunity. That’s no doubt why Oberlin College organized the 2013 Illumination Tour in January 2013, bringing faculty, alums and students to NYC to strut their stuff. While the Oberlin Faculty Jazz Ensemble jammed at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Tue 1/15, the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble with ICE played DiMenna Center at Mary Flagler Cary Hall on Fri 1/18 and theĀ Oberlin College Choir & Oberlin Baroque performed at Brick Church on Sat 1/19.

We caught the Oberlin Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, featuring Oberlin alum Jeremy Denk in the Mozart Piano Concerto #21 on Sat 1/19. The hall was filled, no doubt with parents, patrons, alums and well-wishers from New York, where Oberlin has it’s largest alumni club. What we weren’t prepared for was the level of professionalism and relaxed confidence exhibited by the students in the Oberlin Orchestra.

The opener, Ravel’s La Valse, brought forth exquisite dynamics, focus and intensity, building from ambient opening notes to a wild, fantastically swirling tour de force. Conductor Raphael Jimenez, Oberlin’s Associate Professor of Conducting and the Director of Oberlin Orchestras, allowed the sound to swell and open up, filling the hall. Carnegie Hall, while possessing exquisite acoustics, seems rather dowdy compared to Severance Hall, with its overwhelmingly glittering jewel-box interior. The beige and off-white color scheme of Carnegie Hall always seems in need of a fresh paint job, but the venue never competes with the music. Instead, from our balcony seats, each utterance was distinct and well-balanced. One missed note would be painfully obvious. None were offered by the Oberlin crew.

Pianist Jeremy Denk seemed to know there was nowhere to hide with Mozart’s #21, and he reveled in the opportunity to bring a unique interpretation to this greatest hit. The audacity of the piano heroics made me smile thinking how young Amadeus would have enjoyed showing off like this in a hall like Carnegie in the center of New York City. Denk certainly did.

After the break, the band offered the New York premiere of Oberlin alum Christopher Rouse’s Iscariot. With it’s convulsive opening explosion that probably scared the poop out of more than a few older patrons, this ominous 1989 work served to showcase the versatility of the Oberlin group, who, throughout the evening, expertly traversed musics written over a 200 year period, going back to Mozart’s 1789 concerto. Everyone apparently recovered by the end of the piece, as the percussion section received the loudest and longest ovation of the evening. Rouse himself, appearing onstage to embrace Jimenez, received the second loudest.

Almost an afterthought at the end of the program, Stravinsky’s once-revolutionary Firebird Suite is in a difficult spot. Not as challenging to hear as new music, and not yet a hum-along warhorse, nevertheless, the audience was cheered and rose instantly to their feet at the conclusion of the suite, offering their praise for a triumphal finish to a triumphant concert.

And to think, most of these kids are just a couple years out of high school. Whoa.

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