On a Friday night, maybe you plan to meet up with some friends to study or watch a movie. Maybe you go out to eat or to party. But over at the Eastman School, there’s a very different sort of party underway.
Every Friday night—or on the occasional Saturday—between forty and sixty Eastman students gather on the ninth floor of the Annex building for an evening of sight-reading. Presented with pieces of music they have never seen or played before, the small orchestra, consisting entirely of volunteers, pours out two hours of standard orchestral repertoire under the baton of doctoral conducting student Oliver Hagen.
It all started in 2009, during the second year of Hagen’s graduate studies, when the UR Chamber Orchestra couldn’t play at the Viennese Ball. Hagen’s friends in the ballroom club asked if he could get an orchestra together for the event. Though he doubted himself at first, Hagen found that “the response was surprisingly positive. So then I thought, why wouldn’t people want to do this every week, with so little preparation required?”
The very first sight-reading session featured Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, intended for a large orchestra capable of conveying Romantic-Era drama and emotion. “We only had, like, two string players,” Hagen recalls, “but there was enough enthusiasm to continue.” The group played Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony the following week, this time with a slightly larger string section as well as full woodwind and brass personnel. Since then, the orchestra has only continued to grow.
Junior oboist Lisa Nickels enjoys the non-traditional setting of the sight-reading orchestra. “Eastman strongly encourages being in extra ensembles and putting together groups outside of the normal traditions,” she says. “These readings really get rid of tense orchestral playing because Oliver makes them so casual. I enjoy sight-reading in an orchestra when almost everyone is sight-reading because people seem to relax and if they mess up, nobody will judge.”
In the orchestra’s early days, at the end of each session, Hagen would ask participants to shout out the titles of pieces they wanted to play the following week, and those pieces would be put up to a vote. “It was a little bit chaotic,” he says, “so I started choosing.” Hagen does, however, take requests by e-mail, and tries to honor them. Nickels explains, “Often Oliver listens to our music suggestions, which is great, because people get excited about what they enjoy listening to and can now play.” So far this year, repertoire has ranged from Beethoven’s charming Eighth Symphony to works by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, Sibelius, Holst, and even Stravinsky’s epic Rite of Spring.
In preparation for each reading, Hagen sends out as many as 50 to 100 e-mails a week. “I need to know that people want to be there,” he says. “The challenge is to make something that’s fun—a music party—be organized. If it’s not organized, it won’t be fun.”
Hagen notes that the University’s email system is “beautiful,” allowing him to contact potential participants by simply typing in names he saw on the personnel list for Eastman’s regular ensembles. “I send out a lot of cold emails, and more often than not get a positive response. The Eastman community is very trusting and close-knit in that way.”
While living in Paris, after graduating from Eastman with his master’s and before returning for his doctorate, Hagen tried to put together a similar program with students at the Paris Conservatoire. “It was a little harder to mobilize because people were spread out all over the city,” he says. “There was a much more sparse showing.”
Meanwhile, Hagen points out, “there’s a great spirit among Eastman students. We always want to play, more for the fun of it.” The evidence? “People show up,” says Hagen. “It helps that there’s nothing to do in Rochester.”
Freshman French Horn player Nikki LaBonte agrees. “I think my favorite aspect is the combination of the musical and social,” she explains. “For me, it’s so cool to see all of these students coming together just for fun [and] to play some great music.”
“Also, we are music students,” LaBonte adds. “To be honest, what else do we have to do on a Friday night?”
Gordon is a member of the class of 2015.