Three current Swarthmore students began the Chamber Orchestra First Editions Sunday Performance at Lang Concert Hall by conducting one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s pieces. Although another conductor would orchestrate the other pieces that night, the three students, Aaron Slepoi ’17, Andrew Kim ’18, and Shira Samuels-Shragg ’20, conducted not only an orchestra consisting of professionals and advanced music students, but the opening piece of the night.
The hall was engulfed by murmurs as the last of the spectators of the event shuffled in, clutching their pamphlets the ushers handed them on the way in, and they hesitantly selected their seats with respect to the space and people around them. Quickly, the sound of instruments tuning up immediately silenced the murmur. All mouths were shushed, and all eyes gazed upon the stage.
“It’s hard for me not to have stage fright because I am an anxious person by nature, but I was fine. The only way to get a good performance is to relax and forget the audience — I am not performing at all or doing anything for the audience, what I am doing is for the musicians,” said Slepoi.
After a brief introduction of the night’s events, Kim emerged. At the pedestal, his body was symmetrical except for the baton in his hand. The room was motionless, as the audience was in captivation and the players in concentration. Kim then broke symmetry and began to conduct. The silence was killed, as it had done to its preceding murmur, with only the sounds of the music and respiration remaining.
The Chamber Orchestra First Editions, conducted by former Daniel Underhill Professor Emeritus of Music and Co-Director of the Swarthmore Music & Dance Festival James Freeman, is a group of composers, performers, and renowned guest soloists who play pieces by Mozart and current Philadelphia-area composers. The orchestra is made up of Philadelphia freelance players and some advanced string players from Swarthmore, Haverford, and Bryn Mawr. The concerts are free and open to the public, and also offer space for informal interactions between performers and the audience.
Slepoi, Kim, and Samuels-Shragg each conducted a portion of Serenata Notturna in D, K. 239 by Mozart. Kim conducted first, the movement titled Marcia Maestoso, followed by Shragg conducting Menuetto, and Slepoi conducting Rondeau Allegretto. When finished, all three students returned to the stage, received a standing ovation with the orchestra by nearly the entire crowd, and took their bows. The concert then proceeded, conducted by Freeman, with pieces written by Arne Running, who unfortunately passed this year, and Janice Hamer. The concert concluded with Marcantonio Barone, head of the piano department at the Bryn Mawr Conservatory of Music, playing a piano concerto in E flat Major, K. 449.
“I learned a great deal from working with them [the Chamber Orchestra],” Kim commented after Sunday night’s performance. “Their enthusiastic and friendly attitude towards music allowed me to feel very comfortable, and [to] engage with the music to the fullest.”
Slepoi recalled how he received a letter back in May from Freeman asking if he wished to conduct one of the performances. Freeman had previously asked Andrew Hauze, the director of Swarthmore College’s College Orchestra and Wind Ensemble, for recommendations of conductors for a performance. Despite the long span between the offer and the opportunity to perform, as well as the difficulty to prepare ahead, Slepoi immediately took the offer.
“If someone asks you to conduct something, you never say no. Figure out the logistics later, opportunity is not a lengthy visitor,” said Slepoi. “Opportunities exist to conduct professionals, but to rehearse with professional musicians is extraordinarily unusual. To have this program exist at all, is an outstanding privilege. To have this program exist at all, is an outstanding privilege.”