USD Symphony Orchestra Has Nothing to Apologize for in Night Filled with Forgiveness

USD Symphony Orchestra
Aalfs Auditorium, Slagle Hall
Vermillion, SD
Friday, February 28, 2020

On Friday night, conductor Luis Víquez took his USD Symphony Orchestra and its audience on a tour of the world.  But in an evening filled with a diverse array of music, two things remained consistent: the quality of the orchestra and the overarching theme of forgiveness. 

Dr. Víquez, who rarely speaks from the podium except after the intermission, began the program by introducing the night’s first piece, Memorial to Lidice.  Composer Bohuslav Martinu was in the United States when Lidice, a village in his native Czechoslovakia, was annihilated by German Nazis in 1942.  Martinu’s Memoriam was a tribute to the village, which lost, among others, 82 children.  The performance began a little shakily but steadied itself soon enough.  There were the expected discordant, unpleasant combinations of notes you might expect to find in a piece with this subject.  Several times the strings deferred in silence to a woodwind section that stung Aalfs Auditorium with an eerie sense of loss and emptiness.  Later the strings burst out, perhaps in allusion to the violence, the catastrophe itself.  Maybe the strangest thing about the piece was not the purposeful lurching but the way it ended, which was peaceful and with some reconciliation of the music that had seemed to be at odds with itself.  That almost optimistic ending seemed unsatisfying to me at the time, although as the night went on its place in the story became clear. 

From Czechoslovakia, the program brought us back to the United States—USD specifically—by way of Costa Rican composer Eddie Mora who had been guest composer at the university in 2018.  Mora wrote El Ruido del AguaThe Noise of the Water—as a thank you to the USD Symphony Orchestra and Dr. Víquez, a Costa Rican himself.  The work is based on a haiku which roughly translates to “The freshness, the sound of the water…will make me forgive.”  At this point the nature and narrative of the evening began to reveal itself. 

El Ruido del Agua was challenging but performed well by the orchestra, anchored early on by concertmaster Ken Wang.  It began as conspicuously modern.  The pluck of strings and twangs of percussion suggested water, yes, but water with a tense and turbulent surface.  If we were to expect a forthcoming forgiveness, perhaps the early moments of El Ruido signified the transgression.  As the piece went on, the sound became fuller and more cohesive.  Entire sections played, rather than sole representatives.  The addition of three voices—one soprano and two tenors—seemed to shift the focus from water and nature to a more human experience.  The resolution, as I heard it, was forgiveness-as-coming-together.  A unity.  A belonging. 

After intermission, Dr. Víquez introduced the next piece, Saglietti’s Piazze di Torino and the night’s guest faculty soloist, Dr. Todd Cranson on tuba.  This may have been the program’s one deviation from the theme of forgiveness, but I do hope that Dr. Cranson will forgive me for not being too excited beforehand about the prospect of a tuba concerto. 

But, of course, as I often am, I was wrong.  Cranson played compellingly and coaxed out a far more beautiful sound than I might otherwise have expected from a tuba.  This piece, the night’s only multi-movement work, had its own narrative arc.  The first movement, bright and almost cheery, evoked an outdoor scene.  It wasn’t hard at all to imagine the strings as birds enjoying themselves in the public space.  And the orchestra, in an effort—I assumed—to leave the low notes to Dr. Cranson, stayed mainly in a higher register.  But that changed in the second movement, which proceeded slower and lower.  The bird sounds were replaced with a far more human ache.  The second movement felt classically classical, with a healthy dose of gravitas.  But that, too, shifted in the third movement, as Saglietti, who is only eight years Mora’s elder, brought the piece into the modern era and amused the audience with—literally—an instrument-smacking good time.  Stringed instruments were bowed across, plucked, and popped by players’ open palms.  Dr. Cranson, Dr. Víquez, and the audience all seemed to be enjoying themselves the way someone in an Italian piazza might be entertained by a street musician putting on a show.  And what a show it was. 

The evening ended with the USD Symphony Orchestra at its fullest and most confident.  They performed selections from Bernstein’s West Side Story with a vigor and volume I hadn’t heard since they opened the fall concert with Holst’s Planets.  Unfortunately, I was as familiar with West Side Story as I was with the world premiere—yes world premiere—of Mora’s El Ruido, but this brief selection whetted my appetite and has me ready for more.  Luckily, there’s a production of West Side Story in South Sioux City, NE coming up in March.  And if you want to get the sense of what a live orchestra can do for a musical or opera performance, keep your eyes out for Dr. Víquez and his orchestra as they accompany the USD Opera production of The Gondoliers in May. 

Although West Side Story didn’t exactly have a happy ending, this concert did.  And even if Tony doesn’t make it out alive—from what I’ve heard and read, anyway—there’s the hope of forgiveness at the end of the musical.  You could be forgiven for thinking that a student orchestra in eastern South Dakota isn’t worth your time, but trust me, it is.  Give forgiveness, and the USD Symphony Orchestra, a chance. 

Brendan Todt is a stay-at-home father who shovels his neighbor’s snow in exchange for piano lessons. He is currently reading Shakespeare’s Henry VI and making his way through Mahler’s symphonies.