USD Symphony Orchestra Stands Out in Moments Quiet and Loud

USD Symphony Orchestra
Aalfs Auditorium, Slagle Hall
Vermillion, SD
Friday, December 6, 2019

Friday night I saw my second USD Symphony Orchestra concert, and it left me with a much different impression than the one I saw in October.  In that first concert of the 19/20 season, I walked away surprised at how powerful the mostly-student orchestra sounded and how it filled Aalfs Auditorium, especially with the opening piece, “Mars,” from Holst’s Planets suite.  But Friday what stood out to me was the restraint these student-musicians showed in several pieces that demanded far more nuance and subtlety. 

I’d never heard any Wagner live, so I was excited to hear the concert-opener, a selection from Richard Wagner’s early opera Rienzi.  I expected it to explode to life—much as “Mars” had in October—but the overture understandably eased into it.  The orchestra tempered itself as sections here and there presented themselves.  After some rolling percussion and the announcement of the brass, the full orchestra came together to fill up the space in something that more closely aligned with what little I know of Wagner.  I’m not familiar with the story of Rienzi, but the overture clearly had a story, a narrative arc that built toward its compelling climax. 

Looking at the program after Rienzi, I didn’t recognize the pieces or composers preceding the Tchaikovskyfinale.  I suspected the concert would follow the same narrative structure that the Wagner overture had, building toward the night’s marquee draw, the Nutcracker suite.  In a way that’s true; Nutcracker allowed them to build to full volume with pep and vigor.  But my favorite piece of the night was the second, Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Britten

In Cantus, the USD Symphony Orchestra demonstrated qualities I wouldn’t necessarily associate with a student ensemble.  After Rienzi, the percussion, brass, and woodwind sections vacated the stage, leaving the strings and a single percussionist on the chimes.  You might have thought the remaining string orchestra would have to work extra hard to fill the hall, but they didn’t have to.  They didn’t want to.  Cantus is quiet and eerie.  Just as important to this piece as the sound itself is the space that is left unfilled by the sound.  The orchestra restrained itself in order to achieve that unsettling effect.  Cantus builds slowly to a crescendo that you expect but never actually emerges.  Again, I didn’t know the background, but the recurring chimes and aching strings suggested to me a bell tolling in a deserted city that was struggling to bring itself back to life.  That’s not quite it.  In talking to conductor Dr. Luiz Víquez after the concert, he explained that Pärt wrote the piece after the death of composer Benjamin Britten.  Pärt, apparently, was devastated that he never met Britten.  Thus the crescendo that never arrives, the city that never gets rebuilt.  I had the literal narrative wrong, but the orchestra expressed the emotional narrative impeccably. 

Cantus was followed by a true USD collaboration.  Dr. Víquez conducted the USD Symphony Orchestra in a piece written by USD Emeritus Professor Stephen Yarbrough that featured USD Voice and Opera Assistant Professor Nicholas Provenzale.  Provenzale sang with poise, feeling, and clear articulation through selections of five Psalms as the orchestra played behind him.  Actually, they played over the top of him, not running over his voice but playing high enough and light enough to make space for his beautiful baritone.  All the moving parts came together to create an interesting mix of contemporary orchestral music paired with a classic, operatic vocal delivery of an ancient sacred text.  A Psalm Cycle showed itself to be an enjoyable concert piece as well as a brief, layered history of music. 

The night ended with The Nutcracker suite, which has proven to be a timeless holiday favorite.  Five of the seven movements I recognized, so it was fitting to place The Nutcracker at the end of the program.  These common classics served as just desserts, a nice way to finish off a Friday night concert.  But perhaps my favorite movement of the Tchaikovsky was the Arabian dance, which I hadn’t heard before.  It was exotic, and a little bit understated.  How nice, in a culture where the understated has itself become exotic, to see an ensemble of young musicians who don’t need to blow the roof off the place to blow you away with their talent and professionalism. 

Brendan Todt is a stay-at-home father who is trying to take in as much Siouxland art as he can handle. He curates Art Hub Siouxland and is the host of the podcast Take Whatever Beauty You Can Find, which talks to Siouxland artists about Siouxland art. You can listen to his conversation with USD Symphony Orchestra director Dr. Luiz Víquez here.