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Backstage with the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra

It's nearing 7 p.m. on the first Monday of October, and inside Spaulding Auditorium students haul out instruments ranging in size from mammoth contrabasses to diminutive flutes. As they settle into concentric semicircles facing downstage center,  the sounds of warming bow arms and embouchures create a pleasantly chaotic 12-tone group improvisation.

Elizabeth Shribman '10
Violinist Elizabeth Shribman '10 warms up with other players before the fall concert. (photo by Laurel Stavis)

What draws these young people together—most of them Dartmouth undergraduates, along with a few graduate students and one faculty member—is the chance to perform great classical instrumental works. Tonight is the first rehearsal of the fall 2007 session of the Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra (DSO) and the first time to try, under the leadership of Music Director and Conductor Anthony Princiotti, the material they will play in their fall term concert.

It's a privilege earned through years of dedication. To become even moderately accomplished at playing classical instrumental music requires practice and hard work.

DSO Student Manager and ensemble member Elizabeth Shribman '10 tries to get in at least one practice hour every day—in addition to rehearsals with the DSO and two chamber ensembles. She practices more if she's working on something beyond her current ability level. Admission to the DSO is by audition. For Princiotti, deciding who to admit is a tug of war between including as many students as possible and making sure those admitted are skilled enough to be able to learn the repertoire. Associate Professor of Earth Sciences and violist Leslie Sonder has missed only a few DSO seasons since Princiotti began leading the orchestra. "The DSO is an overachieving orchestra," she says. "Tony draws out all the students can do, and more. There's a real musical legitimacy to what comes out in concert."

The DSO hires outside players to round out sections when there aren't enough qualified student and faculty players, a job that falls to Shribman. Last year, for example, she had to contact 30 professional players before she was able to find the four needed for the percussion section in Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

But professionals don't join the group until the last few rehearsals, so at this opening rehearsal, only students are among those taking their seats on the Spaulding stage. They are soon joined by Princiotti, in jeans and a turtleneck, stopping for brief hellos with individuals as he makes his way to the small podium at downstage center.

Princiotti first takes time for each person to briefly introduce him- or herself, and other than during a 15-minute break later on, this will be the last time most of them speak during the rehearsal. An atmosphere of focus prevails.

Launching into the first piece they'll try tonight, Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, Princiotti starts and restarts the piece until the players get a feel for how the lines interlock in a roiling formation that brings to mind, yes, the turbulent waters off Scotland for which the piece is named. Maintaining a shared rhythmic center is difficult. "I love all the notes—I'll take every one of them you can play," he tells the group.

Now in his 14th year of conducting the DSO, Princiotti trained under Leonard Bernstein as a conducting fellow at Tanglewood in the 1980s.

 He paid special attention to the rhythms in the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major, the third and final work on the fall program. "It's difficult to keep the rhythmic pattern from losing its dance-like feeling," he explains. "There's a visceral strength to Beethoven's music, and the desire to create this power can lead us to distort the rhythm."

That revelation, says Princiotti, can be very valuable. "When you find a strong connection with a great work of art, it can change your sensibilities and affect the filter through which you see yourself and the world around you." 

For Shribman, the payoff for the hours of practice and her added efforts as student manager is right there in rehearsals: the chance to play with fellow musicians who have made a similarly sustained commitment. "My dream would be to play in a professional orchestra. There's nothing I love more than doing this," she says.

Sonder hopes DSO players will maintain a passion for performing music after they graduate. "I hope they will see that music is something that can be fulfilling throughout one's life. Music has been such a big part of my life. I have met most of my close friends through music. It crosses generational boundaries and enables a profound, nonverbal way of communicating with others."

By REBECCA BAILEY

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Last Updated: 5/30/08