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The lights of Sanders Theater illuminated the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO) on the evening of Nov. 11 for the semester finale of the orchestra’s 216th season. Under the direction of music director Federico Cortese, the program featured a myriad of student artists, such as assistant conductors Isaac A. Newman ’25 and Yizhe Sun ’25, and violin soloist Paloma So ’27, highlighting the invaluable role student artists play in the college’s art scene.
The event began with a speech by the president of HRO Nicholas J. Lee ’25, who not only welcomed the guests in the theater, but also introduced the pieces of the program and thanked the people who made the concert possible.
The two highlights of the night were the student artists featured in major roles: Newman, one of the winners of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra 2023 Assistant Conductor Competition, and So, one of the winners of the 2023 James Yannatos Concerto Competition. Their tangible input in the program’s planning and execution made for an enthralling evening.
“What's interesting about this concert is that most of the repertoire is decided independently. So because it’s featuring a student conductor and concerto competition winner, those pieces are decided in advance,” said Sun.
After the opening speech, Newman took the stage to conduct Robert Schumann’s “Overture to Manfred, Op. 115”. The opening piece energized the evening, coloring it with a multitude of emotions, from sorrow and grief to unsettling reflections.
“I chose the piece alongside music director Federico Cortese. I wanted to choose a piece that had a breadth of expression and this particular piece was attractive to me because of its narrative aspect, as an overture to a poem. The length was perfect, in that it was very manageable for the amount of rehearsal time we had, but also had so much in it,” said Newman.
The choosing of the opening piece by Newman was also made with the intention of connecting it to the other parts of the program, such as the third piece, the Brahms “Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77”.
“I think Schumann's ‘Overture to Manfred’ compliments the Brahms violin concerto very well, especially considering Schumann's role as a mentor figure for Brahms and the times in which Brahms has quoted the Manfred Overture in his other works,” Newman said.
Following Schumann’s “Overture to Manfred, Op. 115,” music director Cortese conducted the second piece of the night, contemporary Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s “Ciel D’Hiver”. Placed between two composers of the Romantic era, the middle of the program called attention to the abilities of the orchestra and its diverse repertoire.
“I think the programming of contemporary music is very important in the classical music world, or the classical music scene around the world, but particularly in a university setting, in that the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra is a class. It's a course in addition to just being an extracurricular or a cultural pillar of the university,” said Newman.
As the second piece closed, a short intermission took place. Afterwards, So entered the stage to play Johannes Brahms’ “Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 77,” conducted by music director Cortese. Consisting of three movements, “Allegro non troppo,” “Adagio,” and “Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace,” the performance dazzled the audience, through the merging of the technical brilliance of its soloist with the animated orchestra behind.
So, who has performed with orchestras from all over the world, highlighted the special joy of playing with her fellow members in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra.
“Playing with the HRO, I have so many friends in the orchestra, and they're all incredibly supportive. And to undergo this journey of rehearsing and performing an entire concerto with your peers is amazing,” said So.
So also shared the uniqueness of performing the concerto with an orchestra.
“What's special about the Brahms concerto is that the violinist shares a lot of the major melodies with the orchestra and they sort of intertwine in between the soloist and the orchestra. So, sharing that experience is wonderful.”
The second half of the concert meticulously combined So’s skills — her variation and fluidity — with the intricate melodies of the orchestra, creating strong contrasts of emotional warmth and precise intensity.
“It's very rustic, but also jubilant. Playing it with an orchestra really hits different. It definitely emphasizes any of the emotions and moods you might feel throughout the piece,” said So. “And those three movements contrast so well that they blend together. The Brahms violin concerto is one of my favorite pieces in the violin repertoire.”
As the third piece finished, the program closed to great applause, with the audience giving a long standing ovation.
“I wasn't expecting that,” said So.
“Everyone was really captivated by the music for the whole duration of the concert. I felt really moved. I felt very proud and honored honestly to be there. And it really takes so much effort for audience-goers to feel that way, feel very emotionally in tune with the piece that's being played,” said Louise Kim ’27, an audience member of the performance.
The evening was a wonderful showcase of the rich classical music scene present at Harvard, and the way it interconnects and expands to other communities as well.
“You see the Harvard community kind of come together to enjoy the performance. It really is wonderful and there's a lot of support for the HRO in the Harvard community. I feel people acknowledge it. And for good reason,” said So.
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