On Saturday, Sept. 28, the Amherst Symphony Orchestra (ASO) gave its first performance in Buckley Recital Hall to welcome the class of 2023.
With an exciting program of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festival Overture and Symphony No. 5, it was a perfect way to kick off the orchestra’s 2019-2020 season, which centers on the theme of “Russian Masters.”
The emphasis of this concert was placed on the incoming first-year students, who were celebrated onstage by the veteran performers as they took their seats. Unique to this season is the ASO’s focus on the historical context behind the music; this year, the Russian and music departments partnered to give lectures on the politics and culture behind each composer’s work.
Prior to the Shostakovich performance, Professor of Music Klara Moricz and Professor and Chair of the Russian Department Boris Wolfson gave a lecture covering the background of both the Festival Overture and Symphony No. 5.
They discussed how Soviet suppression dramatically informed Shostakovich’s music, and described the different contexts in which these pieces were created.
Symphony No. 5 was written in 1937 at the height of Stalinist oppression. It was a time of great anxiety for the Russians, and this fear clearly manifests itself in the dark tone of the symphony. In contrast, the Festival Overture was written in the post-Stalin era, marked by a much more expressive and joyful social consciousness, which is reflected in the triumphant sound of the piece.
This historical context was clearly understood in the ASO’s performance, as each piece was incredibly emotive and executed very well. With five hours of rehearsal per week on top of individual practice time, the effort put into this performance clearly paid off. For the class of 2023, this experience was “exhilarating,” as violist Julian Schauffler ’23 put it.
Schauffler commented on this excitement — not just between the performers, but within the audience as well. “People were genuinely excited about an orchestra concert,” they said, which was new to Schauffler coming from their high school orchestra.
Schauffler also highlighted the difficulty of the music they played, especially compared to what they had done in their high school orchestra.
At the same time, though, Schauffler described the uplifting environment within the orchestra, commenting that it was “a lot chiller than [they] thought it was going to be” and that “everyone jok[es] around and there is a lot of camaraderie.”
This interaction was evident throughout the performance, and Schauffler made it clear that every performer was aware of the historical background that informed their playing. When asked about the context behind the music, Schauffler said that “Mark is really into that stuff,” refering to conductor Mark Swanson’s ability to connect the music with social and historical context.
Members of the orchestra delved into the specific historical details behind the pieces which helped them emote what Shostakovich was feeling. “You can’t really get anywhere just playing something very fast or slow, loud or soft. You have to know what the images are, or what’s the specific emotion behind the music,” Schauffler emphasized.
This, in part, is why the Russian and music departments partnered in the first place: to help people connect to the music on a more visceral level.
The rest of the season will feature works by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and other Russian masters.
Lectures similar to the one given before the Shostakovich performance will take place before each of these concerts, so attendees can look forward to getting invaluable historical context around the music.
The excitement and quality of Saturday’s performance will surely be matched in the ones to follow through the rest of the season. The ASO’s next performance will be on Nov. 9, when they will play Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and Piano Concerto No.1.