For many members of the Saybrook College Orchestra, Beethoven’s “Eroica Symphony” — a piece written for Napoleon Bonaparte at the end of the French Revolution — captured the rebellious attitude of the performers who played the piece at Yale in fall 2003, conductor Perry So ’04 said.
The Saybrook Orchestra, which had been formed by students as a slightly less serious but, he said, still competitive alternative to other Yale orchestras, finally received the public recognition that it thought it had deserved, So said.
In the years since they played “Eroica,” the orchestra has ruffled the feathers of several musicians on campus, creating sometimes heated conflict with other student music leaders. But the bulk of the tension remains between Saybrook and Berkeley College Orchestras, the two most prominent residential college orchestras on campus.
The first sign of a clash came last year, when So, who had graduated the previous spring, decided to stay on as the conductor of the Saybrook orchestra for another year. So said he wanted to remain connected with a group that he had grown fond of during his time at Yale.
“I really enjoyed working with this group,” he said. “I wanted to keep making music, and they wanted me to stay.”
But Nicholas Chong ’07, the current conductor of the Berkeley College Orchestra, saw things differently. Chong said he thinks So’s decision to conduct the orchestra for another year was a violation of a long-standing Yale tradition of entirely student-run residential college orchestras.
While that disagreement escalated among rival conductors and managers, some players in the groups remain unaware of the ill will that developed.
Courtney Cox ’06, a former manager of the SYO, said she has not noticed any real animosity between the two groups.
“Most people I know within Saybrook have never had a vendetta against the Berkeley orchestra,” she said. “I think there has been some rivalry in the past and there may be some now, but it’s always been my impression that it’s been between select people and not between the orchestra membership as a whole.”
This year, Saybrook decided to recruit a professional conductor because So is living at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. Although the conductor is working pro bono, Chong said this was another violation of the unspoken rules governing college orchestras. Having to compete with a professionally-conducted orchestra makes recruiting new students to his group much more difficult, Chong said. Despite being almost 30 years old, the BCO has only about half as many musicians as the SYO.
“I’m not going to have the kind of credentials that whoever conducts the Saybrook orchestra has,” Chong said. “That’s something that we try our best to compete against, but it’s difficult. We don’t think it’s fair.”
Although he still remains on good terms personally with members of the Saybrook orchestra, Chong said he and his orchestra have officially distanced themselves from their rival group.
Music Department chair Patrick McCreless said he sympathizes with Chong’s frustration. Although he said he respects Saybrook’s right to choose whatever conductor they wish, he said he was disappointed when he heard that professionals and alumni had been named as the orchestra’s conductors.
“I thought that was not to be welcomed and that it flew in the face of many years of really nice cooperative music-making,” he said. “And so I objected, especially when I heard they were hiring a conductor, and frankly, so did some very high-up people in the Music School and Department. They have every right to go against the tradition if they want to, but I think personally the tradition was a really wonderful thing.”
But So pointed to the Bach Society, another orchestral group on campus that recruited a former student to be its conductor for the 2003 school year, as an example of other groups’ similar decisions. He said he thinks that the complaint of tradition-breaking is simply others’ way of expressing envy at his orchestra’s success.
“Who establishes traditions? I really don’t know,” So said. “And I can just add that it’s a case of penis envy. It’s always like that. Conductors can be very harsh people sometimes.”
The Saybrook orchestra was born out of a reaction by some musicians against the overly rigorous atmospheres that some of their peers craved, So said, and the group’s goal from the beginning was to provide a slightly looser, more relaxed atmosphere.
“Saybrook was very much a child of this conflict,” he said. “It was the kind of hidden mission statement that we were going to provide the best musical opportunity to people who didn’t belong in that camp, who weren’t going to pursue a career in music but still wanted to play music at the highest level.”
Chong insists that the Berkeley orchestra is informal, but students in the Saybrook orchestra said that their group has always kept up a more active orchestra social life.
Alice Jones ’05, who played flute in both orchestras, said BCO events were never as well-attended or as important to the life of the orchestra members as were those of the SYO.
SYO violist Andrew Beaty ’07 said that the flexibility and relaxed environment are among his orchestra’s greatest attractions.
“There’s tons of social events, which is really nice,” he said. “It kind of lets you be as involved as you want to be. If all you want to do is come to rehearsal and leave, that is fine, and the rehearsals are pretty laid-back. At the same time, there are all sorts of organizational things you can do, a lot of parties and get-togethers.”
Jones said she thinks that a sense of rivalry within the Berkeley orchestra was limited to a few people and was the result of jealousy, not objections to the breaking of tradition.
“There was a power struggle going on a couple of years ago,” she said. “I think it was just that people just forgot what music-making was about. I think people who were pissed off were people who weren’t in [the SYO] or thought that [So's] conducting in the orchestra made their orchestra weaker in comparison.”
SYO manager David Rector ’07 said he thinks that inter-orchestra tensions are on the demise
“Whatever rivalry exists is all in good fun,” Rector said.