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CMU Philharmonic kicks off 100th anniversary season

Keith Lockhart, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus, conducted the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic Orchestra to a packed house at Carnegie Hall in New York City. (credit: Courtesy of Leigh Davis) Keith Lockhart, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus, conducted the Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic Orchestra to a packed house at Carnegie Hall in New York City. (credit: Courtesy of Leigh Davis)

The Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic couldn’t have chosen a better program to celebrate its 100th anniversary and the beginning of a new season. A world premiere of the recently commissioned Centennial Suite filled the first half, made up of four sections, each by a different composition faculty member. But after intermission, the highlight of Carnegie Mellon faculty segued into an impressive interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.

Maestro Ronald Zollman, director of orchestral studies and associate professor in the School of Music, led the concert, which — although it included five different composers — was united by calls for peace and celebrations of individual ingenuity. The strong performance highlighted the talent of the young orchestra.

The first part of the Centennial Suite was composed by Marilyn Taft Thomas, composition and theory professor. Titled “Celebration,” the work featured numerous solos that lent a jazzy lyricism to the otherwise unpredictable work. Thomas described the piece as “light hearted,” but the piece is stylistically complicated, twisting through moods every few bars. Professor of composition Leonardo Balada’s “Memories No. 1 — Barcelona 1938” — inspired by his childhood memories of the Spanish Civil War — came next. The piece was dense both emotionally and musically, but the orchestra did a fine job navigating the demanding score.

The stylistic tone of Centennial Suite took an abrupt, dramatic spin in the first bars of the third section, during professor of composition and theory Nancy Galbraith’s “Euphonic Blue.” Working in a different harmonic universe than the previous movements, “Euphonic Blue” moved seamlessly through a series of lush, melodious passages. Rachel Blumenthal, principal flute and a master's student in the School of Music, provided the highlights of the piece with her gentle, tasteful solos.

Zollman rightfully allowed a brief pause before the last section, associate professor of composition Reza Vali’s “The Darkness of Fury.” The segment began with an orchestral roar and launched headlong into an angular fugue that made its way through the entire ensemble.

The first half of the program, being a world premiere, naturally drew attention to the music itself more than to the talents of the players onstage. However, the students performed Tchaikovsky’s notoriously demanding Fourth Symphony with such confidence, it was easy to forget you were listening to a group of college students.

Although Tchaikovsky is known as the arch-Romantic, immortalized in his long, plaintive melodies, the orchestra managed to accentuate an under-appreciated facet of the composer’s talent: humor. The third movement — sometimes treated as a jolly throwaway keeping everyone from the ballistic energy of the finale — was rendered as a fiercely detailed, sophisticated movement. Even as the symphony progressed into its final movement, Zollman and the players maintained an ear for Tchaikovsky’s jokes, like the thunderous low brass giving way to delicate, chirping violins. After rolling to a magnificent climax, the orchestra received a long, deserved ovation.

The orchestra's commanding performance of Tchaikovsky demonstrated exactly what Carnegie Mellon is most proud of: work ethic. Not only did these students prove that they could tackle an imposing variety of contemporary styles with limited preparation, as they did with the Centennial Suite, they also showed their dedication to precise and sensitive performances of notoriously challenging works. As the strings sunk into the first iterations of Tchaikovsky’s thick, sensuous melodies, one couldn’t help but think that our hearts are in the work, but so are our ears.