The Drexel University Orchestra performed the first of its three annual concerts Nov. 23 in the Main Building’s Main Auditorium, led by conductor Rosalind Erwin. By no means a venue typically short on seating, the auditorium was packed with families and friends of the musicians. But the student players weren’t the only ones who these concertgoers were anxious to hear perform: David Kim, renowned violinist and concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, joined the Drexel group for a concerto as the program’s finale.
Billed as the “Music of the Romantics,” the Drexel University Orchestra played “Academic Festival Overture,” by Johannes Brahms and “Capriccio Espagnol” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, both of who were mid-19th century composers. Kim joined the group after a brief intermission for a performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35.”
Just as any professional orchestra would, the Drexel University Orchestra members were onstage practicing individually well before the concert began. As concertmaster Carson Lloyd came onstage and tuned the orchestra, the sounds of the audience settling in began to echo off the walls. Mints were opened, bodies shifted in their seats and quite a few polite coughs resonated through the auditorium. With a program as lengthy as this one (the concerto alone runs close to 40 minutes), the audience was prepared to be in it for the long haul.
Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture” was the orchestra’s opening piece. While the title itself does seem oxymoronic, the piece is much more festive than it is stuffy. The “Academic” part of the title is for the University of Breslau, for which Brahms wrote the piece after receiving an honorary doctorate from the institution. There are four sections to the piece, but it is fairly short, at only around 10 minutes in run time. All four sections are in major keys, which gives the overture a joyful and powerful sound. This is in contrast to some of his other works, such as “Symphony No. 4,” in which the E minor key contributes to a sadder, and markedly less triumphant, melody. The orchestra performed this piece beautifully, staying perfectly in sync with the conductor even through the last section, where the increasing tempo and deafening noise can trip up even the best musicians.
“Capriccio Espagnol” is similarly joyful in tone, but is more playful than Brahms’ overture. The beauty of this piece lies in the melody (and themes on the melody) that circulates throughout the orchestra over the course of its five movements. And, thanks to Rimsky-Korsakov’s composing, David Kim wasn’t the only soloist that night. The fourth movement features several soloists, including in violin, flute, clarinet and harp that pass around a variation of the same cadenza. The harpist is the last to perform the solo, and the entire orchestra rejoined for the fast-paced final movement. Just as with the overture, the student musicians rose to the challenge of finishing the capriccio with enthusiasm while maintaining technical accuracy. This is especially difficult when performing a piece that explodes with energy after a relatively calm preceding movement, as this one does. However, the orchestra showed restraint in keeping with the maestro’s direction and finished the piece just as strongly as it began.
After a 15-minute intermission and much applause, David Kim positioned himself at the front of the stage for his performance of “Concerto in D Major, Op. 35.” Though it is known as one of the most difficult violin concertos, Kim made it look downright easy. The violinist has had a long time to practice, performing as a soloist each year with the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as with other symphonies both in the U.S. and internationally. It could not have been an easy task for the Drexel Orchestra to support Kim’s concerto in accompaniment, especially given that they did not perform the concerto with Kim until the dress rehearsal earlier that same night. But, despite the differences in musical goals (Kim graduated from The Julliard School), the student musicians rose to the occasion. They did a phenomenal job of accompanying Kim without being too weak or overpowering him. Under Rosalind Erwin’s baton, they struck just the right balance and allowed the violinist to shine. And shine he did, receiving a standing ovation at the end of his lengthy concerto.
After the concert, a reception was held and concertgoers had the opportunity to speak with David Kim. A mass of people had flocked to him; he was positively beaming.
In an email interview, Erwin gushed about her students’ performance. “Anyone who attended the concert heard these physics majors, engineers, pre-med and computer tech young people give David Kim a superb accompaniment,” she wrote. And it’s that academic diversity that makes her orchestra so great. “The discipline and focus required to give a quality musical performance translates into knowing how to focus and be disciplined with the rigors of their chosen area of study,” she wrote. “One of the prime reasons the Drexel University Orchestra is so accomplished is because its members are so very smart.”
The next concert will be March 13 in the Main Auditorium. The program will include Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter” and Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” among other pieces. Students wishing to participate in the Drexel University Orchestra should email Rosalind Erwin at [email protected] to arrange for an audition.