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No conductor necessary

Brandon Hollihan | Friday, October 15, 2004

The orchestra hailed from England. The pianist was a true-blooded American. Together, they held a terrific evening of chamber music.The Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields, along with guest pianist Christopher O’Riley, performed a series of works at the Leighton Concert Hall last night to an enthusiastic reception from the Notre Dame community. Works included Shostakovich’s “Chamber Symphony for Strings, Op. 100a,” Mozart’s “Concerto No. 12 in A Major for Piano and Orchestra,” Liszt’s “Malediction for Piano & Strings” and Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings in C Major.”The most intriguing aspect of the evening’s performance was the lack of a conductor to lead the orchestra through both very rhythmically and melodically difficult passages. Rather, it was Kenneth Sillito, the Academy’s artistic director and principal violinist, who controlled the tempo and overall flow of the orchestra with his physical presence. As the orchestra played on, the musicians constantly looked over their shoulder at the concertmaster, while he vigorously rocked back and forth to relay the necessary emotion of each phrase to the players.This is not to say the entire orchestra was lacking in emotion during the evening. When the allegro molto movement of the Shostakovich began, the Academy rushed into action, with every member playing furiously into their music stands. The combined effort was shocking to watch; it seemed as if the orchestra acted with a uniform mind, and Mr. Sillito acted as its master control. This was especially important for the final piece of the evening: the Tchaikovsky “Serenade,” which contained several beautiful melodies, including the Russian anthem, which required the orchestra’s complete concentration.Mr. O’Riley’s addition to the evening was wonderful. The audience saw two sides of his performance in each of the works he performed. He first came off as relaxed and controlled in the Mozart concerto. Much of the piece confined the piano to its upper-to-middle register, with effortless passages to which the orchestra would respond, sometimes in unison. This “back and forth” effect actually felt like one of the concert’s more hollow points, as if the fusion of a string-only ensemble with a Mozart piano concerto had resulted in something missing. Before performing the “Malediction” after intermission, Mr. O’Riley made a sly anecdote to the audience about how, in French, malediction meant “curse.””But not in the way a rap artist or the Vice President of the United States might use it,” O’Reilly said, getting a hearty roar from the audience. When he sat at the piano, however, Mr. O’Riley’s genial presence turned to commanding, as he delved into an implausibly difficult piece. It was easily the most dramatic work of the evening, and Mr. O’Riley’s wrists, thundering away at the keys and covering all registers of the piano, evoked memories of similarly complicated passages from Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3.” Perhaps it would have been better to place the Liszt at the end of the program and leave the audience with that thrilling feeling it had received by the work’s end, while the warmness of the Tchaikovsky opened the second half of the concert. It matters little, though, compared to the fact that the audience witnessed world class performers bringing their gifts to a university that simply cannot receive enough of this musical exposure-and to think, the university is still waiting for the arrival of the New York Philharmonic.Hang on, everyone. The music has made its way to the Dome.