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January 31, 2012

USO brings star-crossed lovers to Mandel Hall

Forbidden love was in the air Saturday night at “Romeo and Juliet: A Lovers’ Triad,” the University Symphony Orchestra’s winter quarter debut, which featured three pieces based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. That conductor, senior lecturer, and performance program director Barbara Schubert didn’t come out in full costume as she normally does for the fall quarter Halloween concert was slightly disappointing as was her decision not to call down to the audience in romantic coos (and cues) from a balcony above the stage like poor, enamored Juliet. Instead, Schubert opted for a more low-key approach, arriving in traditional black conducting garb and delivering a warm, interesting introduction on the three selections to be played that evening.

Going into February, the focus on Romeo and Juliet engendered thoughts of Valentine’s Day romance as well as a mid-winter-quarter-at-UC tragedy. The concert featured popular adaptations of the work by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, in addition to a selection by a relatively obscure American composer, David Diamond, in an effort to champion the works of great but under-appreciated American composers. Saturday’s American feature was “Music for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet”, which opened the concert.

This first Romeo and Juliet began with a dramatic “Allegro maestoso,” which Diamond saturates with simple descending melodies and skillfully-orchestrated string motifs (though perhaps of dubious melodic quality). The orchestra was well-suited to play the quickly changing musical textures, which occurred unexpectedly and frequently in most of the movements of the Diamond, perhaps mirroring the social turbulence at play in Shakespeare’s most famous work. Samantha Fan, the concertmaster, handled Diamond’s music very well, leading the strings in their sprawling melodies, particularly in the “Andante semplice”. In the later movements, the orchestra showed control over both their dynamics and speed, notably during the “Allegretto scherzando”’s fascinating pizzicato and woodwind exchange. Some cues and cutoffs could have been cleaner and Diamond’s final movement seemed to lack the same sophistication as the previous onwa, particularly in terms of dynamics, but this went largely unnoticed due to the orchestra’s wholly capable treatment of the material.

The Tchaikovsky came next, opening in a somber fashion, after which the orchestra warmed into a brilliant cohesiveness when Barbara Schubert deftly led them through some difficult syncopation and nuanced emotional texture. As the piece’s famous romantic melody first emerged, the violas really flourished, playing the theme with verve and emotional depth. Soon after, the violins and woodwinds joined into the innocence and passion. Throughout the piece, Barbara Schubert led the dichotomy between Romeo and Juliet’s tumultuous surroundings and their passionate love with ease. Finally, the woodwinds stole the stage, leading the piece to its mellifluous close and doing justice to a true masterpiece.

The program ended with an odd collection of excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet based on the play. This was perhaps where the orchestra showed the most versatility, varying dynamics very well, carrying both light and heavy melodies easily and transitioning, as in the Diamond, from difficult pizzicato sections to virtuosic cascades of string acrobatics handled brilliantly by both the violins and the cellos. Though the orchestra seemed to lack complete unity during a rubato in the third movement, the complexity of Prokofiev’s work, which is a challenge for the best of orchestras, was otherwise played well.

The decision to end the evening with the death of Tybalt, portrayed by Prokofiev with tragic bombast, was unusual considering the popular close the Tchaikovsky might have provided. The choice of the famous Russian works in combination with the relatively obscure Diamond piece was interesting as well, as the latter strayed from the “definite musical form” that Diamond believed to be inherent in the works of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, which featured more easily discernible melody. All of these choices provoked thought not only of Shakespeare’s play, but also about the ways in which different master composers tackle the emotional roller coaster of Romeo and Juliet. Thus these diverse, albeit unusual, programming choices rendered themselves valuable and contributed to the performance.

Overall, the University Symphony’s performance was quite good, providing the audience with musical texture and color that is required but rarely achieved in the pieces they played. The pizzicati in the Diamond and Prokofiev, the lush melodies in the strings, the percussionists’ syncopation, the woodwinds’ beautiful finish in the Tchaikovsky, and the brass’s strong presence in all three works made the performance memorable. Multiple times during the performance, a Shakespeare quote was called to mind, but not one from Romeo and Juliet. Instead, it was from Twelfth Night when Duke Orsino muses: “If music be the food of love, play on.” The University Symphony will be performing again in March with a symphony by Prokofiev, Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture No. 1,” and Walter Piston’s “Three New England Sketches.”

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