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Occupy Orchestra

A self-described “music-making revolution” took place Nov. 16 at Memorial Church. It was not televised; no heads were toppled in the process; the name Schoenberg was never breathed. In fact, this concert’s program included three of classical music’s biggest ticket-sellers: Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, Sibelius’s Valse Triste, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. No, the revolution was not in repertoire: It was in performance. This was the debut concert of the River Charles Ensemble, Harvard’s new conductor-less chamber orchestra.

In a traditional classical orchestra, the conductor provides the musical vision to guide the ensemble’s interpretation of a given piece in rehearsal, as well as the rhythmic and dynamic cues to direct the ensemble in performance. The River Charles Ensemble has decided to topple this tyrant of the baton to attain a more organic, populist model of musical interpretation.

“We go through a very democratic, bottom-up music-making process,” said Jeremy Ying ’13, a violinist and one of the founders of the River Charles Ensemble. Such a process is never easy. “Rehearsals are so draining,” he said. “In a traditional orchestra, you can zone out and play your part until the conductor critiques you. But here, you have to constantly listen to what everyone else is playing.”

Fortunately, what a conductor-less ensemble demands in attention and technical skill, it returns in the sheer mastery that one gains of a given piece. Referring to the end of the Mozart symphony, where all five of the motives that Mozart has built up throughout the piece suddenly zoom past each other as in a contrapuntal cloverleaf, Ying said, “In listening to each other as closely as we do, you get such a good feel for how Mozart built that.”

Theodore Peng ’13, a cellist and also a founding member of the ensemble, suggested in his introductory remarks to the concert that one also gets the satisfaction of having made a real contribution to the music that results. “Everyone is responsible for coming up with their own idea, their own interpretation,” he said. “You’re sitting here tonight with 35 conductors.”

That hardly sounds conductor-less to me.

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