Illustration by Laura Elizabeth Hand
Prior to the Columbia University Orchestra performance at Alice Tully Hall, my most recent event at Lincoln Center was Yo-Yo Ma’s breathtaking cello performance of Symphonie Fantastique. Yo-Yo Ma climbed to the highest note of his cello while we climbed to the edges of our seats. Here, instead of the back corner box, I am in the front, my gaze catching on an audience that has exchanged black gowns and reserved enthusiasm for H&M and outright fervor.
The spring concert will lead with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (1868), and then eventually trail into Columbia’s own rendition of Symphonie Fantastique with a different cellist starring. Alec Hon’s performance of Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D Major (1783) is set to follow Tristan and Isolde first, however, ushering the packed— sold-out— hall into intermission and then the closing march of Berlioz’s Episode from the Life of an Artist: Symphonie Fantastique (1830).
Heels and blue jeans, overexcited parents and a girl in a blue down jacket (leaning in to gesture frantically at a distracted violinist) are the signs marking the rapid growth of our audience as they press into the general admission seating. The vibrations and eerie peels of the stringed instruments begin as they warm up for the highly-anticipated spring concert. Soon enough, the wind instruments’ lend trills to the rising atmosphere.
In the final moments before Tristan and Isolde begins, there is a brief interlude of frantic applause followed by absolute silence.
Then the sound and the silence that punctuates its phrases begins and the audience is spellbound. Even Yo-Yo Ma did not command this degree of respect from his audience. The musicians and the conductor are clearly responding, as the synchronized sweep of elbows gains in pace and coordination. If music is not their first love, as is the case for Chris James, violinist first-year studying psychology (whose proud uncle sits next to me with his torso half twisted over the edge of the balcony box for a better view), it may yet prove to be their finest.
The musicians move with the music, and the audience is moved. Perhaps a finger slips with perspiration here or there, but the overall effect of the students’ passion is unmistakable and impossible to ignore. In a perfect cycle, a moment of silence, then thunderous applause also carries the piece to a close.
After a few minutes of the muffled brush of gowns, squeak of instruments, and squeal of shuffled chairs, all of the sounds of musicians rearranging themselves for a piece, the strings once more coral the audience into submission for Alec Hon as he takes his cello and takes center stage.
During the Cello Concerto, he pants against his cello as the music rises, sweat visible on his forehead, effort and nerves carrying a different tone into the bars. As each run ends, his right shoulder drops and the bow falls back, leaving the responsibility of the piece to his fellow musicians, who perform the piece with frantic energy. When his part comes again, Hon plays without reference or prompt, and the only moving bodies in the room belong to Alec and the third bass player, who attempts to surreptitiously duck away for a second’s relief from the heat of the lights and his stifling formal wear.
When they come together again, the piece comes to a close, ending with a bow and a fond pat on Hon’s cheek by the pleased conductor. The audience rises to a standing ovation.
Intermission is accompanied by the inevitable gush of exiting audience members bottlenecking in the halls and loudly declaring their opinions on the pieces performed thus far. The discourse seems overwhelmingly favorable.
As the audience members make their more subdued return to their seats, there is renewed enthusiasm for Symphonie Fantastique, which I share but pair with some trepidation. Having recently viewed the undisputed master of the cello take on this piece, how will I review an admittedly incredibly talented student orchestra?
I needn’t have worried. While the piece is nearly unrecognizable from the psychedelic interpretation of Berlioz Yo-Yo Ma and the New York Philharmonic offered, it clearly demonstrates budding mastery of a different style. This is perhaps most evident in the softer percussion and the presentation of the Fourth and Fifth movements. Instead of pushing forward with the shrill nerves of the dream as I first heard it played, the Columbia University Orchestra offers rolling swells of music that invoke a deeper introspection than the NYPhil’s lucid dreams.
Indeed, after the concert ends and the applause grows louder than ever before, I find myself thinking it would be hard to find a member of either audience who did not fall in love with Berlioz and the musicians who brought him to the stage.
The night closes with a lingering audience and many proud tears, the Spring Concert happily demonstrating itself a roaring success.