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Love and Madness

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Walking into the concert hall one is first struck by how the crowd seems to comprise mostly those balding and/or with snowy white hair. It was almost as if I accidentally walked into a social function for the hip above-60s. I noticed a man in his mid-70s sporting a red knit sweater and a crinkled ex-country club smile, greeting all his pals with a joke and a pat as he went on to sit front and center. It was clear that he was the coolest one there.

Who is this audience, here at Swarthmore’s Lang Concert Hall listening to Orchestra 2001? Orchestra 2001 is Swarthmore College’s Ensemble in Residence in addition to performing in the Philadelphia. Orchestra 2001’s performances are always unique; ensemble sizes range from two to 80 performers, and the orchestra collaborates with many other departments such as dance and theater. They give regular performances at Swarthmore College.

“[The orchestra have ] given many world premieres of music by major composers and have made acclaimed recordings, including an entire cycle of pieces written for them by the legendary Pulitzer Prize winning composer George Crumb,” said Professor of Music Andrew Hauze.

The orchestra focuses on the music of the 20th and 21st century and is quite bold and audacious. Despite their acclaim and exciting programs, Orchestra 2001 audiences at Swarthmore usually only comprise a handful of students . The program of the night was called Love and Madness, a nod towards the Valentine’s week about a dozen students were present, an increase from the usual according to a Swattie. Asher Motzy-Wolf ’18, an ethnomusicology major,  has attended multiple Orchestra 2001 performances.

“I’d say that was about double the amount of people that usually goes,” said Wolf .

However, that does not mean that students do not interact or benefit from this amazing Ensemble in Residence. According to Professor of Music Tom Whitman, student involvement with the orchestra has endured and has been very intensive.  

“There is a long and rich history of student involvement with Orchestra 2001. Last year’s performance of Stravinsky’s ‘L’Histoire du Soldat’, for example, provided an extraordinary opportunity for a student choreographer to create a senior project of original choreography,” said Whitman “It was performed by student dancers accompanied by professional musicians.”  

Quiet and unassuming, Alice Thompson the Administrative and Patron Services Associate of Orchestra 2001 sat next to me during ‘Love and Madness’, looking out to the audience. She nods in agreement about some confusion about who is in the audience.

“We considered having a reservation system,or even tickets, but we want to keep the concerts free and let people feel like they have to give any information about themselves,” said Thompson.

She also further elaborated that Swarthmore College isn’t the only institution or place trying to increase their audience numbers, and in fact many who manage large orchestras in the area have continued to raise this concern.

“One of the biggest questions is,how do we get butts in seats? Especially for free concerts. Often the fear is that the audience don’t listen for or understand the quality,” said Thompson.

It seems that most of the audience were older white people from the Swarthmore borough, all looking quite comfortably familiar with the hall and ready for this Valentine-themed concert. The highlight of the night, hinted at by the conductor Jayce Ogren in the beginning, was the second half’s “Eight Songs for a Mad King” by Peter Maxwell Davies. Ogren warned  that there would  be an emphasis on “madness” rather than “love.” The piece featured a large baritone singer dressed in what looked like white scrubs and a white wig, and the rest of the chamber orchestra wore all black with black masks. The singer literally wobbled onto stage guided by Professor Marcantonio Barone, the pianist for the evening, as if mentally unstable. The series of songs were a depiction of the unfolding of the King’s madness. It was one of the most insane performances many people have attended; some of the audience fidgeted and shifted in their seats out of discomfort. The lyrics included almost nonsensical imagery such as addressing sheep and cabbages.

“It wasn’t like anything I’d seen before. They warned us that it would be bizarre before it began, that we should embrace the feelings,” said Dyami Andrews ’19, “but I didn’t expect to laugh at a man singing about talking to trees… it was a surprise.”

Baritone singer Randall Scarlata howled, screeched, and at points dissolved into shaking laughter that was both  creepy and surreal. At one point, he even took the violin from the violinist and smashed it on stage.

“[The violin smash] was definitely the most shocking part,” said Motzy-Wolfe. “I guess some would complain that it was sort of an extra-musical performance, but I don’t think that matters … honestly, I was pretty impressed that this clearly professional singer was willing to hurt his voice and do so many strange noises for an audience so familiar with the western canon.”

Some of the audience members were genuinely scared from the performance.

“What we were really watching [was] the careful descent into madness of one baritone on stage,” said Zac Arestead ’17. “I wanted desperately to go congratulate the cast/crew after the show, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it and I really felt like, I forced [myself] out of the hall to collect myself. The real horror of the piece came, to me anyway, from the juxtaposition of really comic moments (his drag-ish impression of courtship and his tuk-tuking at birds) with the fact that in the world of the piece  —that is,  for King George,— it’s all incredibly real.”

It was also definitely jarring to see the stark juxtaposition between this extremely avante-garde performance and the country-club aged white audience. However, the performance was still  well-received and ended  with standing ovations. Unfortunately, these interesting and artistically progressive performances are not discussed in day-to-day Swatty life, and it might be some time before it does. However, it seems that to those who do go, the music is what is important.

“I don’t care anymore that there aren’t a lot of Swatties,” said Motzy-Wolfe, “This is for the music, for the art, and those who care will show up. That’s all that matters.”

The exciting and cutting-edge performances are only a small aspect of the Ensemble in Residence.

“The benefits of regular interactions between local professional musicians, students, faculty, and the larger community have been immense,” said Whitman. “In recent decades they have encompassed Theater and Dance, as well as a much broader range of musical styles including jazz, World Music, and performances that defy easy categorization, such as A Roomful of Teeth.”

The performers for A Roomful of Teeth will be performing on the evening of Feb 26 at 7:00.

Hopefully, more Swatties will go to see these spectacular performances next time.

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