UChicago Chamber Orchestra Brings Storytelling to Center Stage

Conductor Matthew Sheppard and guest performers Jeffrey Bay and Patrice Michaels delivered a delightful performance last Saturday at the Logan Center.

By Alina Kim, Arts Editor

The University of Chicago Chamber Orchestra celebrated the narrative aesthetic behind 19th-century classical music on Saturday evening at Logan Center. The orchestra demonstrated the power of storytelling, ranging from somber tragedy to vivacious swings, through music. Conductor Matthew Sheppard asked the audience to look out for “the trilling of the violins and the quick sixteenth notes” which juxtaposed the “depressing sarabande of another piece” as the musicians prepared to perform. 

The orchestra began with the “Overture to Der Teufel als Hydraulicus, D 4,” by Franz Schubert, part of the soundtrack to J.F.E. Albrecht’s comedy of the same name. The musicians stayed true to the whimsical melodies that Schubert wrote at age 15, ranging from soft violin plucking in the exposition to the rocking back-and-forth and swelling dynamics of the low strings along with the French horn. Sheppard noted at the end of the piece that Schubert indeed intended to poke fun at the title of the comedy, which translates to “the Devil as Hydraulicus,” and the orchestra communicated Schubert’s playfulness. 

Edward Elgar’s “Chansons de matins et de nuit, Op. 15” was performed afterwards–a piece brimming with trills, sixteenth notes, and panicked crescendos. The essence of storytelling was the most prominent in the dynamics of this piece: the intensity of the piece “ratcheted,” by the words of the music director, as the music swayed between somber tones to playful banter. The greatest contrast came from the decrescendo to near silence, resonating with a single flute lingering in the air, then rapidly transitioning to a wave of rushing notes in a crazed crescendo, to a final flourish before concluding with a tone of serenity.  

“[‘Chansons de matins et de nuit’] is my favorite piece of the night,” remarked first-year French horn player Efraim Dahl. “I’ve always been a musician, and chamber music has always been close to my heart. I love the intimacy a big symphony can’t always offer.”  

The concert proceeded with “Suite d’orchestre dans le style ancien” by Albéric Magnard, divided into five movements. In the style of old Baroque style dances, Magnard altered the standards of the early 20th-century music. Influenced by the works of Liszt and Brahms, his “swashbuckling” music sparks up a unique dance that the UChicago Chamber Orchestra reinterpreted as a contrast between music that inspired light dancing and dramatic percussion that is rather impossible to dance to. The française is particularly fascinating for its focus beyond the melody: while the violas performed the melody, the cellos built up a countermelody with “an interesting bite” that won over the audience’s attention. The sarabande came in after, with its somber, depressing subject, only to clash with the gavotte and minuet, the hearts of the suite that are famed for their irregular meter and beat. The entirety of the piece concluded with a bizarre finale: it was brilliant, energetic, and upbeat, only for the intense and dramatic timpani to drag it back to the depressive tones of the sarabande with a sense of despair and isolation.  

 The highlight of the concert was the orchestra’s interpretation of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” with special guests baritone Jeffrey Bay and soprano Patrice Michaels, the director of vocal studies at the University. Bay started “Madamina, il catalogo” with his expressive voice, gesturing mischievously as he sang Don Giovanni’s servant Leporello's song that warns women of Giovanni's pursuits. His interpretation brought a sense of amusement to the song with his casual runs and mockingly indifferent attitude. When Patrice Michaels joined him in “Là ci darem la mano,” her voice ringing sharp across the hall, light banter between the two entertained the crowd, ending with a dash to the door.  

A fan favorite was the duet “Per queste tue manine,” in which Michaels played the role of Zerlina from “Don Giovanni” and captured Leporello, Giovanni’s servant, tied him up with imaginary rope, and repeatedly air-punched him. With angry yelling, hilarious role-playing, and virtuosic outbursts, the growing mock anxiety and anger was rewarded with audible laughter from the audience.  

Adeptly shifting from tense scenes to light-hearted jests, the University Chamber Orchestra organized its Saturday night performance on a narrative scaffolding that greatly captivated and entertained its audience.