‘Epic’ work from Mahler, chaotic energy from Copland mirror intensity of MSFO in season’s final Amp concert

The Music School Festival Orchestra rehearses for its final concert of the season, under the baton of Artistic Director Timothy Muffitt, Sunday afternoon in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall. Carrie Legg/Staff Photographer

Zoe Kolenovsky
Staff writer

Closing out their season, students of the Music School Festival Orchestra will take the stage one final time tonight to provide the Chautauqua community with their last opportunity to witness the artistic growth they have experienced over the past seven weeks.

The concert will begin at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater. 

David Effron Conducting Fellow Ryo Hasegawa is set to lead the students through Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid Suite, which will be followed by a rendition of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C Sharp Minor, under the baton of Artistic Director Timothy Muffitt.

Although both of the works were composed in the 20th century, with Mahler’s completed in 1904 and Copland’s in 1939, Muffitt said “they represent two very different things.”

“Mahler is the final destination of 19th-century Romanticism,” he said. “Growing from Chopin through Liszt to Wagner, Strauss, then Mahler is sort of the climax of that crescendo of Romantic style.”

Muffitt continued, “(Although) the Romantic tradition did continue into the 20th century … it was a very different Romantic style than what we heard in the 19th century, and Mahler is the culmination of that movement.”

The emotionally rich and melodic style of Mahler’s composition contrasts with Copland’s lighter score, Hasegawa said.

“It sounds very Americana,” he said. “There are lots of polka tunes, and it’s very lively. It’s fun.”

Despite the music’s brighter qualities, the story it tells is a dark and tragic one. It follows the life of Henry McCarty, better known as Billy the Kid, an outlaw who roamed the American southwest in the late 1800s. After avenging the death of his mother when he was only 12 years old, Billy turned to a life of crime, embarking on a spree while on the run and becoming one of the most notorious murderers of the Wild West. The ballet ends with Billy’s own death, shot by the sheriff in a twist of irony just after escaping imprisonment.

Hasegawa said he has been working with the musicians to balance the chaotic energy of the many gunfight scenes throughout the score with the expressions of love shown through Billy’s relationship with his mother and their tragic ends.

“There’s lots of tenderness and warmth and love that reflects (in) the mother’s death and Billy’s death,” he said. “We tried to bring in more of an impact.”

Hasegawa also wants to highlight the theme of gun violence, a problem that continues to affect our society.

“(We’re left with) a very open question, like what do we need to do in order to not kill each other,” he said. “So that’s what I’m trying to bring in through this story and with the musicians.”

After leaving the audience to ponder this question for the culture, the MSFO will return to deliver Mahler’s symphony of epic proportions.

“This is virtuoso orchestra music,” Muffitt said. “It’s immensely difficult. The exciting thing is that the musicians, they know this is an epic work. They know that this is an incredible opportunity to play this piece … and so I think the inherent challenges of the music are more than being met by the enthusiasm of the players to be able to sink their teeth into something like this.”

The symphony runs an hour and 15 minutes, a feat that is all the more impressive coming on the heels of performing Copland’s full suite.

“It is a journey of expressive and emotional extremes, from despair and terror and tragedy to boundless joy,” said Muffitt. “I think that’s why he’s so popular. … People love to go on this journey with Gustav Mahler.”

Muffitt credited Mahler’s incredible mastery of writing for orchestra to his experience as a gifted conductor.

“He was a total master of the orchestra, of writing for orchestra and of knowing those extraordinary expressive possibilities and how to achieve them,” said Muffitt.

He continued, saying “one of the interesting things about the work is that it goes from individuals playing off of each other to entire sections of the orchestra playing off of each other. At any given moment there are two or three completely different things happening. But it never sounds like cacophony. … It’s just like a magnificent canvas of brushstroke detail and coloristic detail and expressive effect.”

The concert serves as the capstone performance for a season that has been hailed by many at the School of Music as one of the best yet.

“I knew from the first week when we dug into (Richard) Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel and I saw the results that they were able to achieve, I knew this was going to be an extraordinary summer,” said Muffitt.

He has worked with the students on most of the five concerts they’ve held as a full orchestra this year, coaching them through new and immensely complex scores every week. This work is in addition to rehearsals for the chamber music series and solo recitals, making the students’ achievements all the more impressive.

“It’s intense,” Muffitt said. “We work really hard together, all of us, towards goals that are deeply important to us as individuals.”

Hasegawa said he feels bonded to his fellow musicians and is grateful to the program for allowing them the opportunity to pursue their passion in such a holistic manner, although he is dreading the end of the summer program.

“I try not to think about it,” he said. “It’s going to be so sad. I just think that the people that I met here are going to be … everlasting friends, colleagues, and mentors.”

Hasegawa said the intensely collaborative nature of the program contributed to forming such strong relationships with his fellow students.

“We’re living in the same dorm, eating the same food, making music together every day, listening to each other, and just hanging out,” he said. “I’m trying to really reflect all the memories through our music-making.”

Muffitt said because of the importance of music to the students, they convey that to the audience through their performances.

“It’s not something they take casually,” he said. “This is their entire focus, and that’s a powerful energy to have in the room.”


The author Zoe Kolenovsky