On Saturday, Nov. 13, the South Bend Symphony Orchestra graced the Morris Performing Arts Center with their glorious music, featuring “Jabberwocky” by Anthony DiLorenzo, Samuel Barber’s “Violin Concerto” with soloist Dylana Jenson and Robert Schumann’s “Symphony No. 2.”
The performance is the second of the Jack M. Champaigne Masterworks Series and the third public concert this season. Conductor and music director Alastair Willis opened up to The Observer about the significance of this event with a unique perspective on the importance of classical music.
Willis remarked how every concert is special and involves meticulous preparation. From the numerous committee meetings deciding the repertoire years into the future to assembling rehearsals within a limited context due to the pandemic, the musicians pour their hearts and souls into offering the audience an unmatched experience.
According to Willis, this season is a moment of “rebuilding” — the South Bend Symphony Orchestra, accustomed to holding 20 concerts each season, has only just been allowed to resume the pace of their programs. They are also preparing to celebrate their 90th anniversary next year. The pandemic, although fading, looms over these large-scale events — for instance, musicians must sit further apart. Yet despite great challenges for nearly two years, Alastair pointed out how the symphony’s “resilient and amazing musicians are able to make such beautiful music,” surmounting obstacles and inspiring countless others in the process.
In Willis’ perspective, music — even the same music — will always be different and new whenever one encounters it. That is why his goal involves making each piece relevant and moving the audience in deeply personal ways.
“Everyone deserves to have an experience with live music, wherein they can escape from this world and find emotional solace,” Willis said. “It is our job as artists to provide this to them, as in any art form.”
According to Willis, When the orchestra and maestro learn a piece, they not only develop their artistic sensibilities, but they also “grow as human beings.”
“Moving” is the most accurate word to describe Saturday’s performance. “Jabberwocky,” symbolizing the Lewis Carroll poem by the same name, was a magical journey; the prominence of celesta and brass innovations such as a water phone, flutter sticks, a bowed bicycle wheel, bamboo chimes and sandpaper generate the “Wonderland” ambiance from our childhood. At the end of the piece, DiLorenzo included a narrator reciting the entire poem, a touch which Willis said was “genius, as it is essentially a recap of what we’ve been through with the music.”
The “Violin Concerto” featuring Dylana Jenson bursted upon the audience with vivacity, bringing color and life with its thrilling motifs. Her virtuosic display was a jaw-dropping experience, and in between her solo sections and the orchestral phrases, her stance was so casual it almost seemed as if those incredibly long and difficult runs of notes took no effort at all. Although I cannot conceive how much practice a solo like this must take, she gave the impression that this music was practically second nature.
Schumman’s “Symphony” is “a journey from darkness and despair into light and celebration.” Written in a turbulent period of his life, both mentally and physically, the first and second movements develop a poignant longing and struggle. Surrounded by the incredible design of the Morris Performing Arts Center, one cannot help but contemplate the ongoing, marvelous phrases with unfathomable gratitude. Change arrives in the last two movements, portraying the beauty of restoration and redemption. In fact, the fourth movement, composed in a later period of Schumman’s life, reflects this the most.
Stunned by Willis’ ability to conduct a 40-minute symphony without a score, I asked him how he is able to memorize the entirety of such lengthy works. He replied that just as you sing along to your favorite pop songs — and perhaps listen to them so often you memorize a guitar solo in the middle, for example — the pieces he works with are deeply connected to his identity as a musician, especially if they have been a part of his life for considerable time. He quoted a teacher he once had who illustrated this by saying, “Either you have the score in your head or your head in the score.” Of course, it is often essential to have the score on certain occasions — like when accompanying a concerto for a solo instrument — but otherwise, Willis said it was easy to recall Schumann’s second symphony because “Schumman has become a part of him.”
Conducting, however, is not simply spewing out the music in a robotic fashion. Part of the wonder of classical music lies in the musician’s ability to interpret the pieces they encounter. Although Willis said that the score is a conductor’s bible, dictating everything they require to succeed, one must study to see where the composer moves in more ambiguous directions. In earlier music like that of Bach, dynamic markings are rare, while in some modern pieces every note carries instructions. Discovering how to present a piece to the audience is an immensely creative process, while also requiring arduous study and care. Further, choosing the right pieces in order to share a wider variety of music — Willis said his favorite composer is “Ludwig van Variety” — is like a science in and of itself.
The South Bend Symphony Orchestra will hold “Home for the Holidays” concerts on Dec. 18 and 19, and they will also return to Notre Dame on Jan. 9 with “Celebrate Local: A Sunday Afternoon with Music and Art.” Information regarding these events may be found in the South Bend Symphony Orchestra and DeBartalo Performing Arts Center websites.
As a final note, Alastair Willis encouraged readers to allow themselves “to be moved by the power of live, classical music.”
Supporting this local orchestra and its world-class musicians is certain to provide a lifetime of incomparable values. Just as Willis himself is truly inspired while observing his great, “Herculean” players overcome the struggles of the pandemic, so too will you be profoundly impacted by opening yourself to a new musical perspective.