Symphony Orchestra invites Sewanee to “Listen”

Members of Sewanee Symphony Orchestra onstageBy Isaac Sligh

Staff Writer

Photo by Isaac Sligh

On Friday, March 27, the Sewanee Symphony Orchestra presented “Listen,” a program dedicated entirely to the music of modern American composers. Under the baton of conductor César Leal the orchestra played an hour-long program to a full house and receptive crowd. The program’s focal point consisted of an arrangement of Aaron Copland’s setting of the traditional Shaker tune “Simple Gifts.” The concert moved closer to the avant-garde with Terry Riley’s “In C,” one of the earliest examples of minimalist orchestral music from the 1960s. The evening concluded with the perennially popular march “Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa. However, by far the most anticipated and controversial piece from “Listen” was John Cage’s 4’33”, a composition scored with nothing but continual rests for the entire orchestra, resulting in a period of silence lasting roughly four and a half minutes long. Cage’s intention was to lead the audience to realize that even if total silence is expected it is actually inescapable, as the noises that the audience creates during the “silent” interval show. The entire event—orchestra on stand-by, audience keeping as quiet as possible—was recorded and archived for posterity, to be anthologized with other recordings of 4’33” from around the world.

“To be honest, Cage was the piece I was most worried about” said Jennifer Merriman (C ’17), cellist for the Sewanee Symphony. “We hadn’t rehearsed it before the concert (shocking, yes), and sitting in the front row trying to keep silent and still is quite hard when all you want to do is giggle at the formalized absurdity of it all.” The piece nevertheless received a warm response from the audience, and the entire concert was well received. “The concert was wonderful; it reminded me of how much I loved going to orchestral performances” said CarolAnne Poyman, (C’16).In terms of the concert’s purpose and concept, Sewanee Symphony Orchestra conductor Dr. César Leal said, “the idea of “Listen” is to present to our audience, in a single musical experience, the diversity, eclecticism, and richness, of the American modern musical landscape. We were excited to have the opportunity to premiere in Sewanee pieces such as “In C” by Terry Riley and the controversial “ 4’33’ “ by John Cage.” “Maestro Leal selected a program that was at once challenging and accessible” said Dr. Stephen Miller, associate professor of Music and violist in the Sewanee Symphony. “The Copland works were a great opportunity for the Orchestra to explore one of the American repertories I like the most. The aleatory works [works composed with random, avant-garde elements]—obviously 4’33’’ but to some extent “In C” as well–are ones I’d never played before but was happy to. This was, I believe, the Sewanee premiere of “In C,” and I’ve been hoping for years to hear that in concert here. Those aleatory works turn out to be surprisingly hard to perform.”

“Since the typical orchestral repertoire draws heavily from the European aesthetic, it’s always refreshing to have a concert program that tries to steer in another cultural direction,” said Merriman. “This particular concert, for example, was thematically very American. The American aesthetic is a lot more experimental, energetic, and daring than our European counterparts, a fact which comes out clearly through Copland and Sousa.”

More concerts are on the way before the semester ends. “We look forward to our last concert of the season, based on musical traditions from Latin America, on April 25, 2015,” said Dr. Leal. An update will be released soon detailing the exact time and pieces selected for this concert.