The booming percussive thud of the timpani reverberated through Roone Arledge Auditorium on Sunday night. Growing in intensity and thickening in texture, the orchestra bloomed into a dramatic, dissonant conclusion to the last movement, giving the audience a moment to experience the music’s organized chaos at its most intense before breaking into applause.
This cacophony in Samuel Barber’s modern “Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance” was the most experimental—and by far the most gripping—part of Columbia University Orchestra’s fall concert. The program, directed by Jeffrey Milarsky, also featured two Romantic pieces: Johann Strauss’ “Overture to Die Fledermaus” and Johannes Brahms’ “Symphony No. 3 in F Major.”
While the members of CUO were technically precise throughout all three pieces, their performance struggled in spots to capture the appropriate emotional nuance necessary to convey the mood of each selection.
The first piece, “Overture to Die Fledermaus,” exhibited faint moments of tension and discomfort due to the chromaticism and sharp changes in dynamics within the frameworks of a waltz and a polka. Occasionally, these outbursts relied on a percussion section that, in this piece, sounded a bit weak for the drama it was meant to invoke. Generally, the orchestra executed the piece’s rapid changes in tempo, meter, and dynamics quite seamlessly. But given that the context of the piece is a revenge plot hidden within a dance, the orchestra’s graceful execution at times threatened to undermine the tension central to the work’s meaning.
“Medea’s Meditation,” however, differentiated itself immediately, with the xylophonist perfectly capturing the mood of the piece in the first minute, playing a short, haunting series of notes before the string section broke into a slow, ominous melody sounding as though it was plucked straight from a Hitchcock film. The orchestra displayed especially impressive control in performing the loosely metered and dreamy opening section of the piece, teetering between order and chaos. Barber’s “Medea’s Meditation” was composed after his work with Martha Graham on the ballet “Cave of the Heart”—a loose adaptation of the Medea myth, originally performed at Columbia’s own McMillin Theater.
Brahms’ “Symphony No. 3,” which ended the program, came off as somewhat timid by contrast. That said, the established masterpiece showcased the quality of the performers, particularly the strength of the brass section, and the impressive technical abilities of the whole orchestra.
Ultimately, while all three pieces showcased CUO’s excellent talent, “Medea’s Meditation” managed to steal the spotlight—partly from the quality of its composition, but more so from its jolting uniqueness when contrasted with the pieces both preceding and following it.
Nevertheless, the orchestra provided a great performance throughout, with each section finding a moment to exhibit its strength, be it the strings’ execution of Strauss’ frenetic polka, the xylophone’s unsettling effect in “Medea’s Meditation,” or the underlying intensity the brass section gave to the final movement of Brahms’ “Symphony No. 3.”
The Columbia University Orchestra will be performing the same repertoire on Dec. 12 at the Symphony Space on 96th Street.