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Beyond Berlioz: A Cycle with the Oberlin Orchestra

Bonnie Anne Whiting '04
(photo by Al Fuchs)

The ensemble managers hurl chairs across the rehearsal room and assemble them into some semblance of an orchestra plot. My fellow percussionists and I roll in the timpani and set out bass drums, cymbals, and other accessories.

It’s the first Oberlin Orchestra rehearsal of the year.

Along with the prospect of our first concert a mere four weeks away, we’re looking forward to the mid-semester opportunity to rehearse under Franz Welser-Möst of the Cleveland Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Having put the percussion section in physical order, I face the first dilemma at hand: discrepancies in the timpani parts for the last three movements of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. My colleagues and I are so diligently studying the parts that we fail to notice that Conductor Steven Smith has entered the room. With just 10 minutes before the downbeat, he calmly helps us decipher a few ambiguities.

Despite the fact that percussionists function primarily on solo parts in ensembles, Oberlin’s 12 student percussionists form a tight-knit group, and we take time to help one another with everything from moving instruments to interpreting music. We share our instruments, a hallway of practice rooms, and one studio. We play together in all Oberlin’s ensembles, including the Oberlin Percussion Group. On Tuesdays, we share dinner. Many of us live together, on and off campus. This close proximity makes us more than mere colleagues.

Franz Welser-Most
(photo by Roger Mastroianni)

Without question, the most unifying element of our studio is the excellent instruction and mentoring of Professor of Percussion Michael Rosen. He leads us through a well-structured, highly disciplined, four-year program of study that is, nonetheless, also individually tailored to each student. In addition to becoming familiar with important musical literature and learning the basic techniques for snare drum, mallet-keyboard instruments, and timpani, we enter a world of percussion pedagogy steeped in tradition because of his dedication and experience.

I am often asked why I chose percussion as my principal instrument. The physical aspects of playing percussion fascinate me, as does its versatility. On any given day I might spend the morning practicing a marimba solo, the afternoon rehearsing a John Cage piece with a Slinky and tin cans, and the evening playing orchestral timpani.

Perhaps most important, however, is that being a percussionist allows me to be an advocate of contemporary music, in which percussion instruments play an important role.

Oberlin bursts with opportunities for new music enthusiasts, and I’ve immersed myself in the performance and creation of new works. In addition to the standard repertoire learned in the orchestras, we become familiar with 20th-century classics and new works by student and professional composers through our work with the Contemporary Music Ensemble and the Wind Ensemble, both directed by Associate Professor of Conducting and Strickland Gardner Professor of Music Timothy Weiss. Because of the superb musical direction here, I am becoming as comfortable with Birtwistle as I am with Beethoven.

And, of course, with Berlioz.

Back in the orchestra rehearsal room, we’ve ironed out our timpani problems and are ready to tackle Berlioz’s romantic ones. Mr. Smith begins with a reading of the third movement. This courtesy “glance-through” is just that; there’s no long preamble, no stopping, no words at all from the conductor throughout the movement. This generous practice has become standard for the first orchestra rehearsal. With several small (and some large) fumbles from each section, we somehow find our way to the end of the movement.

Then Mr. Smith hands out program notes. It’s clear he has an impeccable knowledge of the score itself, but the notes make it evident that he has also done a great deal of personal research on the Symphonie Fantastique. Mr. Smith is familiar with more than just the conventional interpretation, and he gives us plenty of historical background and context.

As the rehearsal continues, I become aware of his incredible attention to detail, his precise clarity in communicating what he needs from the players. Although he sometimes speaks while conducting, it’s more effective when he simply makes eye contact with a violinist across the room, or nods his head in the direction of the bassists. The atmosphere is fast-paced and utilitarian; we’re making music, but Mr. Smith has very specific goals in mind.

After several weeks’ of three rehearsals a week, the concert is upon us. Finney Chapel is packed with students, professors, and community members. Of the remarks overheard in the concert hall, the most common is that the orchestra is playing a number of difficult pieces with very little preparation time.

I could not help but recall the rehearsal earlier that day: we had not gotten all the way through the Barber organ concerto, the Beethoven nearly fell apart, and we hadn’t hit much of the Berlioz, either.

But at the end of our concert, the orchestra finished to wild applause. Along with a great sense of accomplishment and plenty of adrenaline among the players, there was the knowledge that our journey with this music was not yet over. In the weeks to come, we would delve into two of the pieces again with our two guest conductors.

Beethoven’s Leonore Overture no. 3 and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique are staples of the orchestral repertoire. Many orchestra members are familiar with these pieces, having played them before at other schools, summer festivals, or youth orchestras. In our work with Mr. Smith, it seemed his most important objective was to shake us out of our preconceived notions about the works. For example, in our early attempts some of us had played the last two movements of the Berlioz too quickly or had begun the opening of the Beethoven with a division of beats that we’d experienced in other settings, but that was not what Mr. Smith wanted.

In working with the Oberlin Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst focused especially on the introduction and exposition of the Beethoven. To achieve the sound he wanted, he utilized descriptions from the plot of Leonore itself to conjure the very specific emotions Beethoven expressed in his music. He translated this especially to color and vibrato in the string section, and to dynamic contrast, integrity, and intensity in the whole orchestra. He approached the music as a literal interpretation of a story to be told beneath the surface of the notes themselves; the orchestra’s main goal was to express the drama through unified, emotional playing.

Sir Simon Rattle
(photo by Al Fuchs)

We addressed the concept of interpretation again when Sir Simon Rattle came to work with the orchestra. “So you played it one way in your concert. Good!” he said. “Then last week, another conductor did it differently. Great! And now here I am to show you a third way. Wake up! Communicate! Welcome to my world!”

Sir Simon asserted that remaining solidly in one’s own world of static interpretation, or even listening to great recordings and imitating them, is not making new music, or really any sort of music at all. He emphasized active communication with one another, and in the process revealed our tendency to rely on our rote knowledge of the music instead of truly listening and reacting to one another.

Three different conductors, three very different approaches, all of which pointed us toward a common goal: to take personal responsibility for our work and invest the time and energy necessary for the collaboration inherent in playing with an orchestra.

After the concert and the rehearsals with the guest conductors, I soberly realized that my path with this music is just beginning. I feel the same way about the end of my time at Oberlin. I have learned so much in four years, and yet I am compelled to seek further, not settling for one simple solution or interpretation.

Bonnie Anne Whiting majors in percussion performance at the Conservatory, where she was awarded the Ernest Hatch Wilkins Memorial Prize in 2003. A new music advocate, she is active in several contemporary chamber ensembles. After graduating in May 2004, she intends to continue her studies in a master’s degree program in music, with a goal of pursuing a career in performing and teaching.

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