Sewanee Orchestra performs with famed opera singers in a farewell to Conductor César Leal

Kallan Esperian performs alongside the Sewanee Orchestra. Photo by Olivier Mbabazi (C’22).

By Lucy Rudman
Junior Editor

In a farewell concert to the beloved Dr. César Leal, Sewanee Senior Orchestra performed a six piece set that ranged from conductor John Cage’s whimsical “Living Room Music,” partially performed on toys, to Giuseppe Verdi’s “Pace, pace mio dio” from his opera La Forza del Destino.

Four of these pieces featured Kallen Esperian, a world-renowned soprano and Sewanee’s artist in residence, and Reginald Smith Jr., a baritone with critical acclaim and a booming voice, or, in the final piece of the show, Verdi’s “Udiste? Come albeggi,” both.

“It was a fantastic learning experience because playing with singers is so much different than playing with instrumentalists,” said Molly Morgan (C’22), the orchestra’s only harpist. “It was such an honor to have been given the opportunity to work with them. They are the best of the best.” Morgan was featured as a soloist, playing alongside Esperian, in “Pace, pace, mio dio” from Verdi’s La forza del destino.

Additionally, the School of Theology choir, Schola Cantorum, was also featured in a piece for the first time in orchestra history, marking an exciting collaboration between the two schools that often does not occur.

Perhaps one of SSO’s best performances this year, the set was ambitious, engaging, and, most of all, unprecedented in collaboration and complexity.

As for Leal, the progress, which he’s played an integral role in, is immense. Leal started with the school six years ago, and his first concert was the Halloween concert in the advent semester of 2013, was entirely “small, short pieces.”

“I’ve seen this ensemble grow,” Leal said in an interview with The Purple, “not only in size, but in musical maturity. These musicians and this orchestra can play works we could not have imagined five years ago. The sense of commitment, the sense of belonging, and the musicians’ desire to learn and to do things better is just so inspiring for me.”

Leal went on to explain that part of his role, as the leader of such a talented group, is just to, “show them what they can do and where they can go.”

“I can’t take credit for the work they do.” Leal explained, “It’s up to them to rise to the challenge, and this orchestra has done so.”

Leal was the subject of a tribute at the end of the night, given by violinist Maddy Hitel (C’20), in which he was thanked for his work, his dedication, and for “just being who he is.” Multiple members of both the orchestra and the audience teared up alongside Leal.

“Watching Leal conduct Verdi was truly inspirational; his chemistry with the orchestra was electric.” Jackson Harwell (C’22) said, “Safe to say, the University will be losing a huge talent with Leal’s departure.”

Leal is continuing his career as the Director of Orchestra Studies at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but says that he’ll “from a distance, see how they [SSO] will grow and keep improving.”

“In this musical world,” Leal said, “perhaps Sewanee will be my future. One may never know. This will always be home for me.”