For their first in-person performance in more than a year, the Amherst Symphony Orchestra (ASO) performed a welcome concert for the class of 2025 on Sept. 18. Audience members filled Buckley Recital Hall at half-capacity and were treated to four works of varying length and popularity, from a short fanfare composition by a little-known contemporary composer to a well-known, grand-scale symphony.
Quinn Mason’s “Fanfare for Horns, Brass & Percussion,” kicked the concert off to a lively start. Mason, a Dallas-based composer/conductor in his mid-20s, is a classical music wunderkind still crafting his compositional voice, according to Robert Xavier Rodríguez, one of Mason’s mentors. Beginning with a thunderous outburst from the timpani and bass drum, the piece seemed to echo the ethos of this year: tumultuous at times but unabashedly triumphant and resolutely confident. It seemed to voice the idea that life on campus is back, and it is here to stay.
The second piece of the evening was Johannes Brahms’ well-known and often-played “Academic Festival Overture.” Popular among student orchestras — it’s a piece that puts lively student drinking songs to music, so how could it not be a fan favorite? — it was not a particularly adventurous program selection. But the extreme precision of the strings more than made up for it. From the first downbeat, the strings remained sharp and distinctive. During the piece’s stormy moments, though, at times the orchestra lost its cohesion. Conductor Mark Swanson promptly guided the group back together.
Swanson’s long career as a conductor shined through in more ways than one. His skill allowed him to masterfully direct the audience’s attention where he saw fit, from the orchestra’s inner voices to the changing location of the melody. In the moments of full-orchestra fanfare, the brass and woodwinds maturely restrained their volume under Swanson’s baton to allow for a wonderful dialogue between the strings and winds.
As an overture — a musical form that is meant to establish a wide variety of moods and themes to be elaborated upon later — Brahms’ piece is a wonderful fit for the start of a new school year. It allows the listener to reflect on what sort of overture we would compose for ourselves at the outset of a new year. Musically, too, the piece allows for each section to shine through, given the multiplicity of themes.
Florence Price’s “Adoration” was a far more restrained affair. Price, the first African American woman to have her music played by a major orchestra (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the world premiere of her Symphony No. 1 in 1933), was recently rediscovered as a composer when hundreds of her compositions were discovered in a Chicago house’s attic. Price’s melody was calming, as opposed to the overt excitement of the Brahms, and it was played as such. If anything, the music was too calming; the tempo was relatively slow and at times dragged on. The inner voices were also often drowned out by the melody, which reduced the piece’s harmonic color. It was only in the final chord that the cellos and non-melody strings really shone through. Still, the violins were a pleasure to listen to given their beautiful tone and cohesion.
The night closed with Antonín Dvorak’s "Symphony No. 8 in G major," a cheery, tuneful and popular work. Like Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture,” Dvorak’s Eighth was composed for an academic occasion. In Dvorak’s case, it was to mark his admission to Prague Academy. As the only long-form piece on the program, the orchestra afforded it special attention, which allowed the sheer number of themes and the diverse orchestration to take center stage.
The first movement of the symphony was the highlight of the evening as the cellos stole the show with a commanding performance. Led by Swanson at a pace faithful to the often-ignored “allegro con brio” (meaning “fast, with spirit”), the cellos mustered a powerful and deep yet lyrical tone from the start. Rather than simply gliding through the movement and allowing Dvorak’s melodies and tone-painting to enthrall the audience, Swanson guided the orchestra as they barreled through the movement, indeed, “with spirit.” Impressively, they remained balanced while still maintaining the electric energy that characterized this movement’s performance. At times, though, some sections seemed a bit overexcited. The brass toed the line between cutting through the sonic ocean of the strings and overpowering the rest of the orchestra. Ultimately, a few cracked notes and squeaks notwithstanding, the first movement was a remarkable performance.
After such a phenomenal job in the first movement, though, the following three were simply not at the same level. Whether the other movements got less rehearsal time, or if the musicians had just exhausted themselves after the first movement, each instrument group seemed to have a less clear understanding of its job. The themes were slightly more muddled, the inner voices weren’t quite so pronounced and cracked notes popped out a few too many times. Despite Swanson’s best efforts to energize and keep the orchestra together, the group just didn’t seem quite so tight. In the moments of scripted musical confusion, the orchestra itself was a bit confused too.
That is not to say that the final three movements were devoid of highlights, though. The violin solo in the second movement was played masterfully by concertmaster Marie Leou '22. The horns were well-restrained in the third movement to allow other voices to shine through. And the last bars of the finale were a wonderful last reminder of the zest of the full orchestra. After the final note, the audience allowed the sound to ring through the hall before breaking out into a well-deserved standing ovation.
With more rehearsal time to really perfect the finer details of their program, there is no telling how much higher this group will soar. The ASO will return to Buckley Recital Hall Oct. 23 for a performance of Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Rhapsodic Dance” and Edwin York Bowen’s Viola Concerto.