The Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra performed at the Fox Theater downtown Monday under the direction of GU music department chair Kevin Hekmatpanah. It was the second of four shows during the 2015-2016 school year.
I don’t know an extensive amount about classical music, but it’s clear to me now, having attended the recital, that GU’s orchestra should not be underestimated. Not only is the orchestra unique simply in its makeup, but its members are dedicated and gifted instrumentalists.
“The Gonzaga symphony is about an 80-piece orchestra,” Hekmatpanah said in an interview prior to the performance. “It’s about half students, half community members, and it’s been that way forever. It actually works out very well, because if you have a small number of viola students or you don’t have any oboes, you still have to have an orchestra. We’re very fortunate that we’re able to have a large symphony and do a great repertoire.”
The sheer fact that the orchestra isn’t even restricted to current GU students is a testament to how many different sections of this university strive to live and create outside the restrictions of “university bubble.” Having almost zero background knowledge about the details of the orchestra prior to my conversation with Dr. Hekmatpanah, this only made me more fascinated by what was going to be presented.
The concert was divided into two halves, the first of which was presented exclusively by the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra. The first half was described by Hekmatpanah as having “a sort of a Czech Republic theme to it,” with the music being “very colorful and with lots of imagery,” due to the composers.
The first piece was composed by Bedrich Smetana, and, in my opinion, colorful is a perfect way to describe it.
Although my ability to correctly utilize instrumental terminology is a bit stunted, I still had a flood of adjectives come to mind as the orchestra played the piece by Smetana. So much of the piece was played by the entire orchestra at the same time with consistent unity, and the togetherness in and of itself was so impressive.
The Smetana piece wasn’t about highlighting certain instruments or sections over others, but rather was beautiful in the fact that the entire 80 piece orchestra was able to play together for a significant amount of time and never sound cluttered or chaotic. The piece was incredibly jubilant, and it seemed to me the perfect choice to open a concert. It seemed to highlight every instrument and demonstrate their level or expertise without needing to utilize solos.
By the end of the Smetana piece, I was eager to hear what the differences would be in the next piece by a second Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak. Hekmatpanah had explained in the interview that the Smetana piece has been done by the orchestra before, but the Dvorak was new for the group.
“The Dvorak is a piece that we haven’t played before, and it’s a great piece but it’s not something that’s often played, so I’m really excited to introduce that to the public,” he said. “It’s something that I don’t understand why it hasn’t been performed more.”
The introduction to the piece had me feeling like I was about to be in on some sort of best-kept secret from the world of classical music, and I was excited to see how it compared to the more often played Smetana. Its distinct juxtaposition in style from the previous piece made it a good choice as a second piece, and kept me captivated through its duration.
My boyfriend offered that it reminded him of the life of an animal, and I couldn’t agree more. What set the Dvorak piece apart from its predecessor was the mysterious tones and the focus on individual sections before the whole orchestra would come together to play in unison.
Although jubilant in a variety of sections including the end, the piece contained many more moments that rose and fell, as if telling the story of a life. Individual attention on the harp and the flutes added a sort of magical quality to the piece, which gave it an enchanted feel. It was the kind of piece that seemed to be a story with a beginning, middle and end, and the moments that highlighted single or just a few sections of the orchestra worked to create a setting a characters without a single word needing to be said. The piece was complex and evoked so many different emotions, and the expertise of the players was clear simply in the visceral, stunned reactions from the audience members around me as they realized the piece was over and it was now intermission.
It’s possible that the second half of the show had me even further on the edge of my seat, as I now was about to hear the work of the cello soloist, Matt Haimovitz, who had been invited to play alongside the orchestra and with whom I had earlier that week had the pleasure of speaking with over the phone. As Hekmatpanah and Haimovitz had both shared with me, Haimovitz was here to perform a concerto by the 20th century American composer Samuel Barber, which the two decided on together. And, supposedly, the cello piece was nothing short of remarkable.
“Even though he’s 20th century, his music is very accessible, very tonal,” Hekmatpanah said. “The cello concerto in particular is extremely difficult. I myself have performed it once, and it aged me.”
Hekmatpanah stressed that there was no better cello soloist for the job than Haimovitz.
“This is the first time that I have made a cold call [to a soloist],” he said. “Normally what I’ve done is I’ve invited soloists that I’ve had some connection with. It’s a huge honor. He is somebody that studied at the age of 13 with a very famous cellist, Leonard Rose.”
Haimovitz, who was in Buffalo, New York, for yet another performance during the time of our conversation, was incredibly interesting to speak to. It was clear immediately how much he values music and the ability to play and teach it in a variety of settings.
“I love working with young people,” he said. “It’s especially interesting to work on this Barber concerto I’m coming to play. It’s not a piece that’s done that often. It’s kind of rare, and so people that have heard certain cello concertos that are very famous might have that in their ear, but the Barber is going to be new to many so I’m looking forward to putting that together and working on it.”
The first rehearsal that Haimovitz and the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra had together was the Saturday before the performance, but this time crunch was something Haimovitz was used to. He’s been performing since he was 13, when he first played with the Israel Philharmonic while living in Tel Aviv. Since then, he’s performed as a soloist around the world and with university orchestras all over America, including Emory in Georgia, and even performs with those he teaches as a professor at McGill University in Montreal.
“Teaching has been important to me for a long time,” he said. “Even when I was 16, 17, 18 and playing with orchestras I would go and give master classes, and I was often even teaching people older than me. And my teacher, Leonard Rose, was a great performer, but also a great teacher.”
In fact, Haimovitz offers master classes almost every time he travels to perform, and even offers to hold free recitals. It’s one of the aspects of hosting Haimovitz that was especially exciting.
“I think what’s great about what he’s doing is he’s not just coming in and performing and leaving,” Hekmatpanah said. “He’s embracing the community.”
So as I waited to hear Haimovitz perform the Barber concerto with the rest of the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra, I was already pretty starstuck by him as both a performer and a person. His performance was a letdown on neither count.
I was told by Professor Hekmatpanah that I would be “dazzled by the pyrotechnics” Haimovitz would show off, but that is without a doubt an understatement. The concerto, which certainly had many instances of deep and dark tonality, was extremely complex. Haimovitz, who sat at the front of the stage, seemed to only get faster and faster on the cello as the concerto continued, and I honestly had no idea it was even possible to play so quickly on the instrument. The intricacy of his playing was astounding, and each note was so distinguishable from the last. Possibly the most captivating aspect of the 30-minute piece was the back and forth that took place between Haimovitz and the orchestra, which seemed as if it couldn’t have only been practiced in tandem for two days prior to the performance. He and the orchestra received a standing ovation, and it was much earned.
Before the crowd dispersed, Haimovitz performed a piece from the Bach Suites (which he recently recorded all of) as an encore. He thanked the audience for coming, noted that he had been thoroughly enjoying his first time in Spokane and then dedicated the piece to all of the people in the world who have recently perished from unnecessary, mindless violence. It’s obvious to me why he is so sought after as a performer, especially at universities.
The concert was eye-opening to the wonderful presence the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra holds on our campus. It’s a gem of the university that, like many others, seems to be overshadowed by other goings-on, despite the fact that they play alongside soloists like Matt Haimovitz and Richard Stolzman. The latter is a Grammy award-winning clarinet soloist, with whom the symphony will play in April. It’s my hope that everyone attends one of the orchestra performances before they graduate. It’s a beautiful reminder of all the aspects of GU we miss if we don’t commit to expanding our horizons.