Orchestral Maneuvers in the Light 

The VCU Symphony Orchestra takes us to school.


Picture yourself in boat on a river. The oarsman is Paul.  George and John beckon you to come ashore. Your feet recoil from the blistering white sand. Ringo serves umbrella-topped drinks. You thought you did not like classical music. But wait. Haven't you heard these tunes before?  It's the Beatles, with a jazz trio wandering through, drunkenly.

At a recent rehearsal for its upcoming concert, the Virginia Commonwealth University Symphony Orchestra wades through a trippy, dreamlike composition that sounds as if the Beatles went on vacation in the Caribbean, got a bit too much sun, and met up with some jazz musicians who plied them with lime-flavored umbrella-sprouting cocktails. 

This frothy concoction is the second piece by the university's revered jazz professor, Doug Richards, that makes use of the symphonic orchestra, some jazz musicians and a choir. “Some New Threads for Eleanor and Jude” takes as its springboard the hallowed tunes of the Beatles and infuses them with a calypso flavor. The mAclange of jazz instrumentation and techniques, symphonic textures and deeply revered pop tunes makes for a refreshing pastiche, one that is more than a bit surreal. Is that intentional? 

Richards says yes.  "I use each of the four sections [of the wind instruments] in a type of very brief, interlocking, contrapuntal weaving, giving little motific snippets from the main theme,” including some of the Beatles' most beloved melodies. So, is it sacrilegious to toss the Fab Four with a salad of jazz, cathedral choir vocals and violins?  Richards points out that all the great composers freely borrowed by tunes that were popular in their day. “I'm a great fan of Bartok, Stravinsky -- both of those composers used folk music. The folk music of our time, of course, is popular music -- this stuff is pushing a half century old now. I look at this as part of Western culture; in fact; it's part of world culture, now.”

The upcoming concert of the university's orchestra will expand notions of what a student orchestra can do under inspired professorial guidance. At another rehearsal, conductor Daniel Myssyk requires the cellists to replay a lick six times, expecting the best from his young charges. He lavishes attention on the wind players who dance on a high wire of exposed, difficult parts and scoops a luxurious sound out of the violas and violins. “It's not weighty enough,” he admonishes the young players. “It should sound like it weighs a metric ton.”  The students try again -- there is more heft to the sound. “Again,” Myssyk urges, “but this time, with beauty.”  The third time sounds colossal. This is the first rehearsal of the concerto with the guest artist present, and the students have every right to be overawed. Dmitri Shteinberg is a world-class player with more than 20 piano competition honors on his resume. Music major Adrienne Pucky deadpans, “He plays better than Jesus.”  The students know him from his chamber music coaching or as their private teacher. On March 4, he will school them in Rachmaninoff.

Shteinberg is compact, lithe, his sweater tucked into his pants in European style. After completing his triumphal opening barrage, he adjusts his glasses and abruptly stands. While the orchestra pushes ahead without him, he hops off the stage like a physical comic, removes his jacket, tidily folds it over an empty seat, and, cat-like, jumps back on stage, resuming his seat on the black bench at the precise moment necessary to resume playing the concerto, literally not missing a beat.

Rachmaninoff is famously difficult for pianists—the composer wrote music specifically to showcase his own pyrotechnic prowess: He was the Eddie Van Halen of pianists, a superstar in his time. This concerto is not the Third, made notorious by the Academy Award-winning movie “Shine.” These students are polishing the Second Piano Concerto, which is even more languid, more enticing, replete with emotional thickets in which a pianist and an orchestra—and an audience--might be happily trapped. Before the thorny third movement, Shteinberg crosses himself for good luck, and immediately proceeds to make mincemeat out of those treacherous passages. He has become well-known among Richmond classical fans as an organized, dedicated, no-nonsense teacher and extremely hard-working musician. The surprise is how passionate and emotional his playing is. Colleagues, friends, the professor's new bride and adoring students watch the rehearsal from the hall.

The value of playing with such an artist cannot be overstated. “This is such good training for the students, getting those accompanying skills that they need so much,” Myssyk notes during a break in rehearsal. “The biggest benefit is to develop this sense of always listening, of always being connected to the soloist.” When the orchestra students' attention wavers, which is rare, Myssyk reminds them, “One eye on the conductor, one ear on the piano.”  The image of an ear on the piano causes more than one player to chuckle. But from then on, the ensemble is entirely at Shteinberg's beck and call. Together, they proceed to spin a musical line of exceeding length and loveliness, one of the most sensual melodies ever written -- a scarf wafting to the ground, slowly.
The VCU Orchestra will perform March 4 at the Singleton Center for the Arts at 922 Park Ave. Tickets are $5. For information, call the box office at 828-6776.



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