Emily Cai

Audio Transcript

It is Oct. 21, I’m standing in the Grove Street Cemetery. This place is fascinating. It is the United States’ first planned cemetery, a so-called “City of the Dead.” The streets are lined with plots of graves reserved for whole families. Roger Sherman is buried here, so are Eli Whitney and Noah Webster.

Usually, we visit a cemetery to pay respect to the dead. Today, I am reflecting on a different kind of absence. One that sounds like this:

[Wind, ambient noise]

In a way, an absence of sound characterized last year. Empty classrooms, empty streets and empty concert halls. We heard silence everywhere. Yale’s Woolsey Hall was empty too. Right across the street from the cemetery, Woosley is the home of the Yale Symphony Orchestra and other groups. Woolsey Hall is distinct from Yale’s Gothic Revival architecture. It is classic. 

[Subtle sound of people moving around, talking, taking their seats]

Through the trees from where I’m standing I can see its big, imposing dome and tree-trunk size columns. Inside, the concert hall is huge and ornate, almost gaudy. The walls and columns are lathered in gold paint. The first thing you notice when you walk in behind the stage is a gold-tinted organ with more than 12,000 pipes. It’s more than three stories tall: one of the largest organs in the world.

Look up and you might as well be in Versailles. The ceiling is characteristically French — sculpted paneling, gold cartouches, and a mural of the sky. Students I spoke with in the auditorium told me the ceiling reminds them of an Easter Egg. With a capacity of almost 2,700 people, it is an auditorium that demands to be played in.

Yet, for more than a year, neither the Yale Symphony Orchestra nor anyone else took the stage here. The auditorium was silent.

[Sound of people abruptly stops.]

Junior Supriya Weiss, president of the YSO, tells me how the pandemic affected her musicianship. 

WEISS: “I mean, for me, music is all about communication. That’s communication between composer and musician, musician and audience and between the musicians themselves onstage. I have always loved chamber and orchestral playing because — I don’t even know how to describe it. There’s an unspoken connection between players. Okay, for example, when I’m sitting principal flute and I have the principal oboist next to me and we have a duet — we can’t talk to each other when we’re on stage. Instead, it is entirely through this unspoken communication. This intimacy of knowing each other’s playing and each other’s body language. That is something that you lose when you are in a pandemic. It’s something I didn’t realize how much I missed until I was making music alone in my bedroom and just recording it and sending it to my friend to play along with. There’s a beautiful connection between people that happens when you’re creating art simultaneously in the same place that you lose when you put a screen between us.” 

But I should interject. To suggest as I did that music was dead at Yale last year is not quite right. Students and faculty I interviewed were clear that while Woolsey Hall might have been silent, most bands on campus were working harder than ever. The YSO was no exception. They enlisted prestigious alumni to teach “master-classes” for students, held sectional rehearsals and performed virtual concerts.

The group — Yale’s first undergraduate orchestra — was founded in 1965 by a cohort of Yale College students who were disappointed by the lack of opportunities for undergraduates to perform orchestral music. Today, the orchestra welcomes undergraduates and graduates alike. And it is worth pausing here. Orchestral music has been performed for more than 300 years — the genre is older than Yale itself. I spoke with John Mauceri over the phone from New York. He graduated from Yale College in 1967. Now, he is a Tony, Grammy and Emmy award-winning conductor, having conducted for the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony, as well as the Metropolitan Opera. He was the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s first full-time conductor, a position he held while pursuing a PhD in music theory. 

MAUCERI: “The group wasn’t the group when I took over. The few years before the Yale Symphony, and even when it was called the Yale Symphony, it was playing in Sprague Hall, and it was a very small group that played to almost no audience and had a very limited appeal. And, what I did — every September I would go to the Old Campus and just listen to see if someone was practicing. A window would be open, you’d hear a flute; A window would be open, you’d hear a cello, I go up the stairs! I changed the entire — I mean, I wasn’t alone in this, but I was the architect of what you now think of as the Yale Symphony. I moved the orchestra to Woolsey Hall (it always played in Sprague Hall). I created that first season, if you look at the first season, if you just look at the archives, you’ll see that everything changes: We were giving world premieres, American premieres, we were giving New Haven premieres of almost everything we played.”

The YSO has between 80 and 90 members. It is still an extracurricular club for all Yale College students regardless of their affiliation with the Music School. In fact, most students are majoring in something other than music. The YSO rehearses twice a week and performs between five and seven concerts annually. Music Director Brian Robinson told me that young people energize the orchestra. 

ROBINSON: “I have to say, one of the reasons why I’ve lasted 18 years doing this job is because of that vitality. In a conservatory environment, typically the orchestra is a class that is compulsory, that you have to go to. I went to music school in New York as a composer and I witnessed my orchestra-musician friends groan and grunt and complain every time they had orchestra to do because they had other ambitions and they wanted to do other things other than orchestra music. But here, they created this orchestra because they wanted this. This was a student created and student organized orchestra, which is really unusual for the level of quality that the YSO is.” 

Students I spoke with agree with Robinson. Aria Harris ’24 is a trumpet player and co-produced the 2020 and 2021 Halloween Shows with Supriya Weiss.

HARRIS: “I think that a lot of people, myself included, were drawn to the YSO and Yale in a larger sense because you can have this amazing musical experience without having to be a music major. People can then still play music at a high level and connect with other people who are really passionate about music without having to lock yourself into a music major or a music career in a way you would have to in other places. So I think it is absolutely true that people are really really passionate about other things and also are fantastic musicians.”

There might be one concert that best captures the character of the orchestra in its early days. It was called “The Contemporary Scene” and was performed on Nov.16, 1968. I dug through Yale Symphony Orchestra archives and found the concert bill for the Nov. 16 performance. There is a quote from legendary American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. “‘The orchestra is dead,'” he is quoted writing in an article for the New York Times. “He pointed out that no new music is being written for the orchestra as we know it today, and what little there is has no audience.” This quote was front and center on the bill, distributed to everyone in the audience. “‘Orchestra is dead.'”

That night, the orchestra responded to Bernstein. The repertoire included four orchestral works written within the previous twenty years, including “A Survivor From Warsaw” by Arnold Schoenberg and “Atlas Eclipiticalis” by John Cage, who is a modern and controversial composer. The Yale Symphony Orchestra stood up and said: “Orchestra is not dead. We’re a brand-new orchestra playing brand new music. We’re right here.” Brian Robinson tells me the energic defiance exhibited in 1968 still animates the musicians.

ROBINSON: “You know, from the very get-go in the super charged political era of the late sixties. There were many questions about: You know, are these institutions — they’re primarily old white men making old white music–what are we going to do about that? … Programming not just new composers, but new women composers, new composers of color, new composers from different backgrounds that aren’t just the white western canon.”

Today, the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s Halloween Show might best capture both the group’s musical excellence and youthful, energetic interpretation of the genre. Every year, the orchestra shoots and edits an original silent movie and arranges an accompanying soundtrack. They play the soundtrack to the silent movie live on Halloween. Aria, co-producer of the Halloween Show, explained that production begins months before the performance. Supriya described her first Halloween Show like this:

WEISS: “The actual show itself, oh my god. Just —I’ve never been in a concert like that before, where the audience is screaming and you’re having fun and we’re all in costume. I imagine that people who play in professional Pops orchestras, this must be what it feels like for them, and yet magnified a thousand times because I’m surrounded by my peers on campus. The fact that the level of music making is so high and yet we’re not taking ourselves seriously at all, I absolutely love that feeling. It was exhilarating. I think that from that point forward I chased out: ‘I want to be involved with this. I want to be one of the people who is leading this.’… part of what is so incredible about the Halloween Show is that it’s not just about the YSO, the Halloween Show is a Yale institution. I mean, I remember my aunt was hiking in Arizona and she saw someone wearing a Yale shirt and they ended up chatting. Turns out this person was a Yale alum who had watched the show that weekend. This person had not connection to the YSO, didn’t know any current members, and yet, she was just so excited. She was like: ‘Oh, my old Yale friends and I can get together and participate in this Yale tradition from back in the day.’ That was just insane for me to hear.” 

Besides the film crew, the silent movie’s cast are exclusively orchestra members. The production team told me work on the Halloween Show usually begins in February, when producers solicit movie scripts from other members of the orchestra. Usually, they said, a plan for the show is finalized by May. Filming begins the first week of school in late August and concludes in October. Movie director, senior Lucy Wilkins ’22, told me about this year’s filming and why she became interested in the Yale Symphony Orchestra.

WILKINS: “We also shot the entire thing in a week, which is kind of insane. I think usually the Halloween Show is shot, when it’s a normal non-COVID year, it is usually shot over the first month of school, whereas we literally packed the whole thing into one week. And it’s also interesting, especially this year, because we had to adhere by the indoor ‘wearing a mask’ rule, and, you know, maybe half the show was shot indoors. So it was weird because you’re trying to get people to act but you also can’t see half their faces, so it became a lot more about physicality, because realistically they could be saying anything under the mask … One of the reasons I wanted to do the Halloween Show was because I actually remember writing about it on my ‘Why Yale?’ question of the admissions application, because somebody had told me that the tickets sold out quicker than a Beyonce concert, and I was like ‘I love Halloween, and it is so cool how the community all comes together to celebrate film and music.’ So directing the show, especially this year, the last round of school, it just feels like a very round-circle moment.”

The show debuts at midnight on Halloween. This year, because of University restrictions on in-person gatherings, capacity in Woolsey Hall was capped at 275 audience members. After a brief opening performance by Low-Strung, an undergraduate rock-cello group, the orchestra rushed on-stage in costumes coordinated by section. There were bananas, insurance salesmen, Squid Game players, storm troopers and the Marvel Universe, just to name a few.  

[Sound of organ, crowd cheering

Then the show started.

[Orchestral music]  

This year’s movie was a spoof of Monty Python’s Holy Grail. It was called “YSO and the Search for the Holy Ale,” starring Yale President Peter Salovey as King Arthur and all 14 Head of Colleges as his knights. 

[Holy Grail trailer]

Junior YSO violinist Ines Chung-Halpern ’23 and senior oboist Alec Chai ’22 played lead roles. Sophomore Francis Fedora ’24 wrote the script. Because the Ale is said to make undergraduates lazy, Salovey and his knights work diligently to destroy it. But Alec and Ines work harder. Racing against time — and even bribing Handsome Dan along the way — they find the Ale. Along the way the film satirized Yale, poking fun at frats, elitism, overworked students and the Yale to professional consulting pipeline. 

Conducted by YSO student director junior Jun-Davinci Choi ’23, the orchestra performed the soundtrack for the silent film live. Jacob Miller produced the music score. It included modern pieces, like Britney Spears’ Toxic.

[Britney Spears, Toxic]

As well as classical music, like Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture. 

[Magic Flute Overture]

In the end, after consulting a knowledgeable Directed Studies student, Ines and Alec realize the Ale must be destroyed. In their own — mimed — words, if Yale students drink the Ale, making their classes all easy, “no one will know anything, and the world will cease to function.”

Spilling into the street after the show, it felt like we had taken a sip of the Ale, having been freed for a moment from the pressures of work and study. John Mauceri explains why the orchestra is vital for the University.

MAUCERI: “Now here’s the point. Music students have a way of sharing what they do with the community which is unlike almost any other field of study. Because you can be a great physicist—no one at Yale knows what you’re doing. You can be in thermodynamics, right? If you’re an English major, you’re reading “Beowulf,” or you’re reading whatever you’re reading, but a musician is studying. And what they do is, they perform. They actually share what they’re learning. So the entire environment of the community is enriched by having music students do what they do, which is to share their music with everybody. The orchestras of the equal universities, whether you’re talking about Princeton, or Harvard, or Cornell, they don’t have orchestras like this. Now you and I are talking and it’s 2021, and the Yale Symphony is now like the grandma, the old, the orchestra that has always been there. But believe me it wasn’t always there in the 1960s. It became that. From 1968, when I became music director, it created the kind of template, and then it was continued by all those who followed and all the students who played it and it’s something quite glorious.”

The Yale Symphony Orchestra’s next concert is Saturday, February 19, from 7:30-9:30 p.m. in Woolsey Hall. Tickets are free and can be reserved online at yso.yalecollege.yale.edu, where you can also find more information about the orchestra. My name is Oliver Guinan with the Yale Daily News Magazine. Thanks for listening.

[Orchestra music fades back in]

Oliver Guinan is a Managing Editor at the Yale Daily News Magazine. He is an English Major in Trumbull College from Reno, Nevada.