Photo Courtesy of en.wikipedia.com

On Saturday, Oct. 13, Eastman School of Music brought the unique music of Claude Debussy, a French Impressionist composer, to life in a spectacular, two-and-a-half hour concert featuring some of Eastman’s world-class ensembles.

This concert in Kodak Hall was the opening event of the “The Prismatic Debussy” festival lasting the entire month of October at Eastman. This festival celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of  Debussy, who wrote his music during the later part of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. The festival included performances by Eastman’s premier ensembles as well as guest lectures, recitals and premieres of recently found Debussy pieces.

This concert was unlike most other Eastman concerts in recent memory because of its use of digital media and live explanations of all of the pieces. The concert opened with a warm welcome from Eastman Associate Dean of Graduate Studies Marie Rolf. She elegantly played the part of emcee and audience-educator of all things Debussy throughout the concert.

Before each work, she gave background and explained elements of the work to the audience, including when Debussy wrote the piece, what was happening in his life at the time, major influences of the piece and things to listen for. Some of the aspects she alluded to, such as duple and triple meter, would probably not have been understood by audience members less knowledgable in music. Her well-crafted explanations gave audience members a much deeper understanding of Debussy’s works, greatly enriching the listening experience.

The first performance of the concert was “Printemps” (springtime), performed by the Eastman Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Professor of Conducting  and Ensemble Neil Varons. Before the performance began, Rolf explained to the audience that the piece had a springtime theme for which they should be listening.

“There is a theme in both movements of the piece and it sounds like this,” she said, gesturing to the poised orchestra. On cue, Varon led the orchestra in a short exposition of the theme, allowing the audience to know what they were supposed to be listening for. A few minutes later, when the orchestra performed the piece impeccably, even the non-musicians in the audience were most likely able to pick out the theme each time in each of its variations. The piece itself was breathtaking with its romantic, sweeping lines and a magnificent ending.

Dan Rolf used a projector and a huge screen hanging in the middle of the stage to give her explanations a visual element. A well-prepared, visually pleasing series of springtime photos and paintings by Monet that are said to have inspired Debussy were flashed up on the screen during “Printemps;” the paintings said to have inspired other Debussy pieces were explained to the audience in due course. This use of media on a giant screen, while having the potential to be distracting, only added to the whole experience of being an audience member.

The next performance of the concert was by the Eastman Wind Ensemble directed by Mark Scatterday and Donald Hunsberger. The first piece performed by this ensemble was “Marche ecossaise.” Debussy based this entire piece on a simple Scottish folk tune; the sheet music for the tune was projected onto the screen during the performance. The entire audience was shocked when, on a cue from Dean Rolf, Andrew Ducan entered Kodak hall from the rear,

rear, playing the theme of the piece on his bagpipes. Duncan slowly marched through the audience and up onto the main stage, finishing his incredible performance with a final round of the tune center stage. It was quite an amazing sight, a fabulous bagpipe player decked out in traditional Scottish attire, center stage in Kodak Hall. It was definitely one aspect of the concert that can’t be forgotten.

The Eastman Wind Ensemble went on to perform this piece as well as two other works, “Sarabande” and “Hommage à Rameau” with great skill and clarity. Scatterday and Hunsberger arranged these pieces, originally written for piano, specifically for the ensemble. Hearing the piece on many wind instruments instead of one piano gave it great complexity and renewed intrigue.

The final piece of the concert, an excerpt of “Le Martyre de saint Sébastien,” was a very abridged version of the work — the entire piece is four hours long. The part of the piece selected for the concert was Saint Sebastian’s death (end of act 4) and rise to heaven (act 5). The selection started very softly and utilized the lower instruments of the orchestra.

The performance concluded with loud, heavenly praises to Saint Sebastian, showcasing the incredible power of both ensembles. The entire concert seemed to be enjoyed by the entire audience and deserved the standing ovation it recieved.

There are many more concerts to come before the conclusion of the Debussy festival at the end of the month. This concert has certainly set the bar high for all other performances of Debussy, but it’s unlikely the students, faculty and guest performers of Eastman will disappoint.

Sanguinetti is a member of the class of 2014.



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