U-M's University Philharmonia Orchestra closed its season with a Spanish tinge


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U-M's University Philharmonia Orchestra wrapped up its 2017-2018 schedule on April 17 with a sonic Spanish tapas along with an exploration of a once-controversial French piece steeped in Germanic influences.

This was my first time in the magnificent Hill Auditorium. While I was reading the program before most of the orchestra came out, I heard a deep, stirring, bellow of a note from the stage. As a bass clarinetist myself, I recognized it as one of the lowest notes that can be played on the instrument. For me, the sound signified that it was going to be an enjoyable night.

The evening started with Symphony in D Minor by César Franck. This moving work begins with the low strings leading into quick violins. I had forgotten how wonderful it is to watch players, usually strings, moving to the music as they play.

Some of the violins in the first movement reminded me of music that you hear in boss fights in video games. It was tense and exciting. The second movement features a gorgeous English horn melody. There was a lot of interplay between the English horn and the violins, back and forth between the high, quick notes of the latter and the deeper, softer notes from the former. The exciting third movement played off parts of each of the previous sections and tied the work together.

The history of Symphony in D Minor is nearly as interesting as the music. It was written in Paris in 1888, 17 years after the end of the Franco-Prussian War. But with tensions still simmering, Franck's dive into a German-style symphony was received with mixed results in France.

The evening's second work, Three-Cornered Hat, Suite No. 1 by Manuel De Falla, is a cute composition for a ballet. A miller and his wife are working in their garden when they see their magistrate. The husband says they should play a prank on him, so the miller hides in the bushes while his wife dances to lure the magistrate into a trap. The two begin to flirt and the wife continues to move to the spot near her husband, who jumps out and chases off the magistrate with a stick. The piece ends with the couple continuing to work in their garden.

The magistrate is symbolized by a bassoon, whose deep solos were playful but also somewhat intimidating. Every once in a while you could hear a foreshadowing of the chase theme, knowing the miller was watching every move of his wife and the magistrate. The parts of the piece that were meant to represent the wife dancing in the garden were absolutely beautiful.

My favorite part of the evening was Malagueña, the second movement of the concert-closing, Spanish-dance-like Rapsodie espagnole by Maurice Ravel. I knew it was going to be a great piece when a musician came out carrying a contrabassoon. The movement's bass line was just riveting! It made me yearn to pull out my bass clarinet and play again, which I’m pretty sure I’ll do soon.

Rapsodie espagnole's ending, appropriately named Feria (Festival), felt like being at a large outdoor celebration. The music is arranged so that there's cross-talk between the orchestra's different instruments, making a sound that is somewhat reminiscent of simultaneously hearing snippets of various conversations at a large gathering. It was a grand piece to end the night, full of energy and excitement.

This entire experience reminded me why I loved, and miss, being a part of a band/orchestra. Conductor Oriol Sans was incredibly enthusiastic and really pulled the evening together. The orchestra, comprised of U-M students, had such great chemistry and talent. Everything about the performance seemed smooth and perfectly executed.

I’m grateful that I was able to attend the final performance of this year and am looking forward to going to more next season.

Melanie Baldwin is a Public Library Associate at AADL and also manages the Friends of AADL bookshop. She played bass clarinet for nine years in grade school and college but hasn't played much since then. She enjoys everything books, music, and pets.