All the seats in Irvine Auditorium were empty, but the familiar haunting strains of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” filled the hall. On stage, a small circle of violinists, viola players and cellists leaned into their instruments. Rehearsal had begun. There are just a few days left before the April 25th joint concert of the University of Pennsylvania Symphony Orchestra and the University of Pennsylvania Choral Society.
The Barber would be the final piece on a daunting program that included two compositions based on sacred texts—Mozart’s “Vespers” (K.339) and Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms.” The program seemed particularly appropriate for a world recently rocked by war.
“Music has this extraordinary ability to speak to our deepest needs,” said Professor of Music Cristle Collins Judd. “I don’t think it was a program that was overtly conceived as a response to the world situation. The program was set in November, but undoubtedly, our conductors, J. Karla Lemon [for the University Symphony] and William Parberry [for the Choral Society] were thinking about that.”
The University Symphony, founded in 1878, is the oldest music performance ensemble at Penn—older than both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, which both only recently celebrated their 100th anniversaries. Today, it is one of 12 ensembles sponsored by the Music Department.
Judd, the associate chair for performance, oversees the coordination and promotion of music performance opportunities for students on campus. “We want to make sure that all of the music initiatives are connected to our curricular mission, but we also want to let the campus know of our belief in the abiding value of music performance, not only for undergraduates, but for graduate students, faculty and staff.”
Back at rehearsal, two trombones and a horn player joined the strings on stage. “Beauty of sound” was the watchword from Lemon as the players moved from the long elegiac line of the “Adagio” and took up the brisk classical tempo of Mozart’s sublime religious music for orchestra and chorus.
There are only 20 undergraduate music majors in the School of Arts and Sciences and 20 to 30 students who chose a music minor, but for 500 to 600 students from across the University, participation in performance ensembles is an important extracurricular activity.
“ Students often take one or two music classes,” said Judd. “For some it is a way of continuing that connection that was very important and deep to them.”
As Lemon took the violins through a tricky passage in the “Vespers” for the last time, students carrying flutes and French horns and bulky bassoon cases began to filter in one by one. It was out with the violins and in with the woodwinds and the brass.
“ The ‘Symphony of Psalms’ calls for very unusual forces—not a traditional orchestra,” said Judd. “It uses only the lower strings, cello and bass, and a slew of winds—four flutes and piccolo, four oboes and English horns, plus a harp and two pianos.”
The only thing missing was the Choral Society. They marched in single file down the central aisles, 100 strong, to fill the back of Irvine’s capacious stage. Tenors to the right. Sopranos to the left. At Lemon’s signal they began with Psalm 150: “Alleluia. Laudate Dominum in sanctis Ejus. Laudate Erum firmamentis virtutis Ejus.”
“ It is not a symphony in which I have included psalms to be sung,” Stravinsky wrote. “It is the singing of psalms that I am symphonizing.”
“ In some sense, the concert is a last memorial to our colleague Eugene Wolf, who died in December,” Judd said. “He was a music professor who sang with the Choral Society. He died tragically early and so the concert this year will mark his passing.”
The Music Department’s performance ensembles give concerts throughout the academic year. For more information about them and the concert schedule, visit www.sas.upenn.edu/music on the Web.
Originally published on May 1, 2003