New student ensemble for 20th century music shines

Although it’s easy not to notice, Yale College has many performance groups for classical music; the Yale Symphony Orchestra and the Bach Society Orchestra are complemented by several residential college orchestras, the Yale Undergraduate Chamber Music Organization, the Yale College Opera Company and many individual undergraduate musicians.

With a few important exceptions, though, these ensembles share an aversion to music that was written before 1700 or after 1910. The latter boundary, which leaves 90 years of vital and exciting music largely unavailable to undergraduates, is what drove Mark Seto ’03 to found the Timothy Dwight Chamber Players, a new undergraduate ensemble dedicated to the performance of 20th century music. In its current incarnation, the ensemble is a 19-member string orchestra, although the group hopes to include wind and keyboard players starting next semester in order to “tackle a more varied range of repertoire,” Seto said.

The Chamber Players gave a passionate inaugural concert Monday night, presenting a program of works by Bela Bartok and John Adams.

The outer movements of Bartok’s “Divertimento” for string orchestra, written in 1939, are among the composer’s most good-natured utterances. A bumptious folk ethos prevails, although the music is not without its moments of bracing intensity and complexity. The central movement is more typical Bartok, an example of what has been called his “night music”: slow, subdued, persistently dissonant.

Rhythmic complications and intricate ensemble writing are the rule here, and under Seto’s baton, the orchestra couldn’t avoid a few rough spots. During big-boned moments of energy and fire, though, the orchestra coalesced into a powerful unit with impressive muscle and bite. The lower strings produced a warm, rich sound, making this small string orchestra more potent than the sum of its parts.

John Adams’ “Shaker Loops,” written in 1978 and recast in 1983 for string orchestra, formed an effective second half to Monday’s short program. If it must be classified, this is “minimalist” music, and an insistent rhythmic pulse supports this description. But the range of musical materials Adams deploys above this pulse is far from minimal: string harmonics, glissandi, and a wide variety of trills and tremolos, all within an “American” harmonic language of open fifths and major ninth chords.

The pitfalls here for players accustomed to the 19th century symphonic repertoire are too numerous to list. Seto was brave to program this piece, and his performers responded exceptionally well. The harmonics on which many passages in the work depend are all but impossible to produce consistently, but these parts held together convincingly. The resulting sounds were appropriately light and mysterious. And though it is harder than one might think simply to maintain a steady rhythmic pulse in a large ensemble for such lengths, Seto and his players made it seem easy.

These are two works of a sort that is rarely heard on this campus, and the founding of a group dedicated to this repertory is itself a cause for celebration. The fact that they perform it with such panache, assurance, and palpable enthusiasm is more great news for musical life at Yale.

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