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South Bend Symphony Orchestra performs at Notre Dame

This past weekend, the South Bend Symphony Orchestra opened its 90th season with two stellar performances of “Mozart y Mambo” at the DeBartalo Performing Arts Center. Conductor Alastair Willis was greeted on stage with the presence of his sister, Sarah Willis, a member of the Berlin Philharmonic and French horn player.

The Symphony began its birthday celebrations with a diverse and animated program, as all of the pieces selected were exciting or compelling in some manner. The opening number, Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella Suite,” reflects the humorous nature of the Italian “comedia dell’arte,” the play which inspired  Stravinsky to compose his ballet. The piece is divided into eight movements, all of which convey particular happenings or emotions of a scene through different musical styles which quickly and effortlessly blend into each other (for example, a rapidly moving “scherzo” contrasts with a melodious “serenata”). The subject of the music, Pulcinella’s dashing escape from the envious boyfriends of the girls he woos, is colorful and lively; it even features an intriguing battle between instruments, designed to portray the struggles of wrestling characters on stage.

With Stravinsky completed, the orchestra welcomed the horn soloist Sarah Willis for a performance of Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 3. The composition was what could be usually expected of Mozart: divine, happy and full of light, with musical phrases that are simply “meant-to-be.” However, the piece was brought to its full potential by its interpreters, Alastair Willis as conductor and Sarah Willis as soloist. Sarah, for her part, performed with great skill and playfulness, teasing her brother at times in a typical sisterly fashion; she even added such humor to the music of her “cadenza,” or improvisational solo. Now, Alastair Willis’ personal touch and his prowess may be observed in all of the performances he conducts. I personally felt this was evident in the second movement of the horn concerto, the Romance. The lyrical, melodious character of the music was fully brought to light by Willis. Under the Maestro’s guidance, the orchestra almost seemed to visually swell under the soaring phrases and carefully executed crescendos. 

Then, Sarah Willis graced us with a work of her own design. She first related her experience of encountering Cuban music for the first time and being utterly enthralled by its beauty and power. Deciding to bring together composers for a bold and ambitious project, Willis transposed a number of Mozart’s pieces to the Mambo genre. Beyond this, her version of Mambo featured the addition of a full orchestra, traces of additional sources like the Brazilian samba and forró, bursts into song and solos for the horn, an instrument which she was told was too crass and cumbersome to be involved with Mambo. Indeed, she merged it all exceptionally. Her “Rondo a la Mambo,” inspired by the third movement of the horn concerto we had all just heard, was the most vivacious and unique moment in the program. As an encore, Willis later repeated the same piece and invited the audience to sing and clap along to the music. She also later shared a moving and elegant orchestration of a traditional Cuban song, “Dos gardenias.”

The evening progressed with a rendition of Bologne’s Overture to the opera “L’Amant Anonyme,” or The Anonymous Lover. This piece was a repose from the previous excitement, as its slow, beautiful, and passionate movements led the audience to bliss. It was a brilliant decision to incorporate Joseph de Bologne into the repertoire, who was not as widely known but has been recognized as the first great classical composer of African descent.

Lastly, the performance concluded with yet another unique and humorous piece, “Le boeuf sur le toit,” or “The Ox on the Roof” by Milhaud. In keeping with the style of the rest of the program, Milhaud’s music provided unceasing surprises, unexpected turns and playful melodic choices. When introducing the piece, conductor Alastair Willis called his audience to imagine or conjure up the wildest scenarios, for that was the intent of this intensively creative music.

I highly recommend you listen to these wonderful pieces, especially Sarah Willis’ “Mozart y Mambo” album, which may be found on Spotify. If you are interested, you may also stay attuned to the rest of the South Bend Symphony’s season program. Their feature in the South Bend Civic Theatre’s production of West Side Story will doubtless prove unmissable.

Contact Marcelle Couto at mcouto@nd.edu.

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