This was the hardest part:
Ye ice falls! Ye that from the mountain’s brow/ Adown enormous ravines slope amain –/ Torrents, methinks, that heard a mighty voice,/ And stopped at once amid their maddest plunge!/ Motionless torrents! Silent cataracts!
Getting my mouth around those words by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which preface the third movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica, getting the tone and accents and pauses right, proved to be more difficult than I had imagined. Speaking into a microphone and hearing my voice resonate into the large room we were to perform in threw me off as well. I messed up the passage a couple of times during the dress rehearsal Friday afternoon. My friend, conductor Christopher Russell, didn’t seem to mind, and the musicians in the Orange County High School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra didn’t laugh at me, at least not that I could tell. We all had a lot on our plates, the Sinfonia Antarctica not an easy thing to get together.
Chris put the orchestra through a grueling rehearsal, the first the orchestra had had with the pipe organ, narrator and wind sounds (electronically produced). The solo soprano (Hillary Place, fantastic) sang from a balcony to the side of the sanctuary; the women’s chorus sat directly behind the orchestra. Chris told me that the orchestra was one or two rehearsals short of what they’d normally have before a concert. He had plenty to settle with his young musicians.
Anyway, I have no drama to impart. By concert time, I had pretty much got the hang of my negligible narrative duties — the secret, at least for me, was to take it slowly, allow the words to sink in and reverberate, pause, next phrase. Some of the highfalutin’ language sounded a little funny at first coming off my tongue — with its Southern California twang — but I eventually found the proper tenor for my pitch, or at least I felt so. I was no Ralph Richardson, but not terrible.
The OCHSA Symphony saved its best for the concert — the Antarctica went off without a hitch, and was really quite moving. I sat in a front pew and took a few steps toward and up to the stage for my oratory. I only hoped not to stumble, and managed not to. It was strange taking bows at the end, Chris and I leaving the stage together and coming out again, the audience (mostly parents, I’m sure) standing in ovation — I had done so little. Afterward, a couple of people complimented my efforts and I’ll take their word.
The first half of the program featured Karel Husa’s “Youth” Overture (lots of percussion and snarling brass) and Steven Stucky’s eloquent “Colburn Variations” for string orchestra. Chris doesn’t mess around and it’s no wonder that this ensemble received an ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming for six consecutive years.
Just before intermission, Chris handed out his own awards for the year — Most Promising Musician, Most Inspiring Musician, etc. — and the kids seemed very happy to get them as their colleagues roared their approval. Then, Chris asked all the seniors in the orchestra to line up at the front of the stage and say their names, which instruments they played and which colleges they were going to. All 17 of them were going to college.
These young musicians seemed like normal teens for the most part, though they were very quiet during rehearsal. During breaks they gamboled about and made a ruckus just as you’d expect. Many of them, I’m told, won’t be pursuing music as a career, or major in it in college. But they are different from other kids, in at least one way. They now have a performance of the Sinfonia Antarctica under their belts, which, if you ask me, is no mean thing.