Past, Present, and Future on Display in USD Symphony Orchestra Concert

USD Symphony Orchestra
Aalfs Auditorium, Slagle Hall
Vermillion, SD
Monday, November 23, 2020

It’s nearly Thanksgiving, and it won’t be long until the Christmas stories start being told.  Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, for instance, features the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future.  Though past, present, and future were in view at last night’s USD Symphony Orchestra concert, there was nothing ghostly about it.  The concert was full of life and energy. 

The orchestra, as a body, a collective, played as well as I can remember seeing and hearing it.  But the circumstances of the concert—limited attendance, strict social distancing, and masks—allowed me to see the orchestra not as a singular body but as a congregation of people, of individuals.  With the exception of Dr. Ioana Galu, who was standing in as Associate Concertmaster, the players are students.  They are young people preparing to go out into the world.  They are preparing to face their futures.  In order to succeed in that future, they must have an understanding of our shared past, our shared present. 

Because of the pandemic and the re-organization of the orchestra in the hall, conductor Luis Viquez was turned out, facing the audience and the rest of his players.  But the program also turned everyone’s attention to the work of the underrepresented.  The program began with Symphony No. 1 in D Major by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.  Bologne was a black European composer.  His father was a wealthy man, his mother a slave.  Bologne has been called the Black Mozart, which of course he is not.  Mozart is Mozart and Bologne is Bologne.  His Symphony No. 1 stands on its own merits.  It does have that classic “classical” feel, but there are moments where it allies itself as much with feeling as it does with form.  Its performance was a joy to experience. 

The USD Symphony Orchestra makes music.  But the Department of Music at the University of South Dakota is charged with a different task.  It makes musicians, and very often it makes music educators.  Two of these future educators—Sean Fenenga and Nick Mettler—were on display as they took the podium to conduct brief Chorales by Bach. 

These students gain practical experience playing in and leading the orchestra.  They are being exposed to canon favorites like Bach and newly revived old composers like Bologne.  And they also have the chance to perform contemporary work, like last night’s world premiere of “Quirk” from South Dakota composer Deanna Wehrspann.  The markings in the first few lines, the composer noted, indicate that they should be played “crazy and fun.”  Though it was inspired by the walks Wehrspann took through Sioux Falls, the piece felt as though it was running through the concert hall.  She said she hoped the audience would smile during the performance, and I know I did, but the piece wasn’t all pomp.  “Quirk” earns its bright finale by passing through quick moments of solemnity which added gravity and context to the lighter, more exuberant passages. 

There will be no more performances for the orchestra until 2021.  There may not be any more performances for students who are graduating after this semester.  But these students’ futures are bright and built on solid foundations, past and present.  If there was one thing I took away from “Quirk,” it wasn’t that it was walking or running away from the present; instead it seemed to me moving gleefully into the possibilities of the future. 

Brendan Todt lives in Sioux City, Iowa and teaches Creative Writing at Morningside College.