Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
The Observer

South Bend Symphony Orchestra is back in season

Emma Kirner
Emma Kirner

On Saturday, Sept. 25, the South Bend Symphony Orchestra gave an extraordinary performance at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. Emerging from the heavy COVID-19 restrictions from the previous year, the orchestra rejuvenated its audience with the thrill of inaugurating a new season. The program featured composers old and new, starring unforgettable pieces led by the Grammy-nominated conductor Alastair Willis. 

The evening commenced with Jessie Montgomery’s “Starbust,” an adventurous piece that truly lives up to its title. You can easily imagine yourself traveling across galaxies, witnessing the birth of glorious stars as the quick, scattered melodies enclose upon you from various directions. The independence granted to different instruments is liberal and enhances the urgency and thrill of the piece. The work is short, however, and the journey abruptly comes to an end, but only after you have traversed the universe through its experience.

The second piece, “Concerto for Piano & String Orchestra,” was particularly special. Joined by the composer himself as the soloist, the orchestra was pleased to welcome the virtuosic Adam Neiman to the piano. A renowned American pianist, Neiman enchanted the audience with a magical reverie. According to the director’s illustrious opinion, Adam “owns the piece — literally, because he composed it as well!” Although it may be cliché to draw a parallel between a classical piece and movie soundtracks, I could not help but imagine such ethereal music featured in an epic fantasy film. Once you start listening, you will immediately be transported. The balance between soloist and orchestra is exquisite, and Neiman makes an excellent use of all of the registers to convey his message. 

In the piece, a troubled, somber beginning is met with small dashes of hope, followed by mellow and passionate phrases. Next comes a rapid dance-like section, wherein the melody escapes triumphant as if from a slumber. It relishes in freedom and excitement, then slows down to a looming contemplation. A reflective version of the theme takes the stage. Suddenly, you can detect approaching darkness and hesitation, followed by a moment of ecstasy and conflict pinpointed by the orchestral solo. The piece gains rapidity and seamlessly transitions to the delightful “dance” once again. We are skipping and twirling with the melody until an explosive reiteration of the theme brings us to the conclusion.

It was fitting to end the night with Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” since it is one of the director’s favorite pieces of all time. The “Serenade” contains four movements, all of which were beautifully interpreted by the conductor. Each phrase was handled with the grace and care that it deserved, emphasizing key features at exactly the right moments.

To describe the musical language, it must first be pointed out that the scene is set with a pointed and precise beginning. But the piece keeps slipping and sliding into blissful continuity. Suddenly, a playful theme begins, which contrasts with the languor of the beginning. The melody grows anxious and energetic, but with time, it hesitantly begins to sing again. The audience skips through a final set of stairs before the dramatic theme of the beginning ties the first movement to a close. The second movement is my personal favorite; it is a waltz that feels like waking up to the morning birds and slowly taking in the beauty of the earth around you. The third movement is the sunset to this long day. Contemplative and passionate, themes are thrown around the different instruments as they simultaneously work to develop it. Finally, the fourth movement evokes the images of an innocent sweet infant, driving through the countryside, a slightly chaotic march, hiking up and down a mountain and a combination of incredible countermelodies and reiterations of the melodic theme.

Conductor Alastair Willis informed the public that pre-concert informative talks will be held digitally this season, “full of energy, life, and positivity.” He encouraged all to watch them, whether before or after the concerts. 

Even if you missed this event, be sure to listen to the featured pieces and indulge in their brilliance. And be on the lookout for the next amazing South Bend Symphony Orchestra performance!