A Close Look–From a Distance–at USD Symphony Orchestra

University of South Dakota Symphony Orchestra
Aalfs Auditorium, University of South Dakota
Monday, October 5, 2020

Tonight the University of South Dakota Symphony Orchestra started its new season in a new but not entirely unusual way—not unusual by today’s standards, anyway.  The orchestra, led by Dr. Luis Víquez, performed an abbreviated concert that was livestreamed on the Music Department’s website, though a few lucky (and masked) spectators were able to sneak in to watch and listen. 

I say “sneak” because it felt oddly intimate to be one of those few spectators, so few, in fact, that the musicians in the front of the hall outnumbered the non-musicians scattered everywhere else across Aalfs Auditorium.  Only Dr. Víquez, the percussionist, the keyboardist, and a section of cellos and basses occupied the stage itself.  The remaining musicians performed from the first few rows of the auditorium, their eyes on Maestro Víquez, their backs turned on all of us. 

I thought at first I’d be put off by that fact.  That somehow their positioning would ruin the acoustics (what do I know of acoustics?) or at least diminish the feeling of the concert as performance.  In the end, I don’t think it did feel like a performance, which is perhaps the thing I enjoyed the most. 

In the evening’s first piece, the mostly-student orchestra performed Alex Shapiro’s “Passages,” which was composed during the pandemic and must be played live to an accompanying recording of electronic music.  This is music that I imagine must challenge the musician as much as the listener, the way the sections enter here and there and layer on top of the recording.  It took some time to get used to this approach, this style, but then I did, and I enjoyed it, and I gave up trying to identify which sounds were coming from which section (or which speaker). 

After “Passages,” which is contemporary and startling—and therefore a perfect fit for the time—the program moved forward by reaching back into the past for a few movements from Maurice Ravel’s “Ma mère l’Oye,” or “Mother Goose.”  My favorites were the last two selections, “Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas” and “The Fairy Garden.”  In this final movement the room was brought to a satisfying crescendo.    

We often think of art mainly as a means of expression, but it is, of course, just as much a matter of craft.  Though I followed this orchestra closely last year and have heard them fill the space with loud and impressive music, in tonight’s “Passages” I got a sense of them at work, in the best sense of the word.  Here were students who had studied and were putting into practice the things they had worked at, the things they had worked for.  And best of all, because of the situation and the way they were oriented—their backs to us—it felt like they were doing it all for themselves, which, we all recognize, they should be. 

Brendan Todt teaches at Morningside College and coaches (sort of) his sons’ soccer teams.