rebirth of a symphony orchestra
an unusually hot, early September night, the first evening of rehearsal
in the BC Symphony Orchestra's fall schedule, and the mugginess
is giving the strings a fit as they try to tune their instruments.
The 20 or so returning musicians haven't seen one another for months.
Graduation depleted their corps by eight or nine players. But they
arrange themselves, as if by instinct, into an orchestrastrings
in front, woodwinds and horns behind.
The conductor, John Finney, is a trim, energetic man, with bright,
kind eyes. "Welcome back," he says. "We're going
to read through the first, third, and fourth movements." Without
another word, he raises his arms, counts out a beat"and
a one . . ."and the familiar "da da da dum"
of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 fills Lyons 423.
The sound is tentative. A sour note rings out, a few cues are missed.
Someone mutters an apology. Finney stops here and there to retrace
a section but keeps things moving briskly, offering encouragement.
"Such a nice sound to have you all in the same register there,
cellos and violas," he says after a correction. By the end
of the one-and-a-half-hour session, the group is beginning to pull
together. "It sounds great already. I'm very excited about
it. Good, good reading," he tells the students.
But what the orchestra has accomplished in one night is nothing
compared to what happens in the same room two weeks later. By then,
Finney has auditioned dozens of prospective new players and re-auditioned
the returning ones to determine each person's place in the seating
hierarchy. The orchestra has swelled to 49 membersthe largest
ensemble in Finney's four years as director and distinguished artist-in-residence
Among the acquisitions are freshmen and a sprinkling of upperclassmen,
two new trumpet players, a piccolo, a third French horn, and many
more strings. They'll all be needed to pull off the ambitious November
15 concert program in Gasson Hall featuring not only the Beethoven,
but also Dvorak's Slavonic Dances and Brahms's Academic
Festival Overture. The selections reflect Finney's belief that
familiar classics remain instructive for student players while being
more apt to attract student audiences than would a relatively obscure
Finney begins this rehearsal with Beethoven's fourth movement. After
making a few adjustments, he lets the musicians play it through,
his arms looping and arcing, sketching directions in the air. The
sheer volume of sound created by the additional instruments gives
the orchestra new authority, but something else is going on. The
49 players, many of them still strangers to one another, who a minute
before were tentatively exchanging glances and introductions, find
a common language and coalesce. The result is music that is harmonious,
lush, and, in some moments, even breathtaking.
The chemistry was not lost on principal cellist Sara Birnbaum '04,
who, several days later, recalled how it felt to be rehearsing with
a nearly full complement of musicians. "After we played Beethoven
and Brahms we were on a high all night. We were jumping around,
we were so excited by the music. There were so many new players
and they were really good."
Finney noticed the difference too, confiding, "This is the
best the orchestra has ever sounded this early in the year."
orchestra's emergence has been the result of a two-pronged campaign,
originating with the music department faculty and joined by the
current generation of students. In 1999, eager to expand BC's music
programming, department chair T. Frank Kennedy, SJ, decided to throw
more support behind the school's small orchestra. Finney, who had
been directing the University Chorale since 1993, was hired also
to lead the orchestra, effectively expanding his role at BC to full-time
Finney came to the position with a career as a critically acclaimed
organist and harpsichordist. He still performs regularly and holds
several appointments outside of BC, among them as associate conductor
and chorus master of the Handel & Haydn Society. Richard Dyer of
the Boston Globe has called him "one of the city's
busiest and most valuable musicians." The music department's
Kennedy calls Finney "a true teacher." Because most students
join the orchestra out of a love for music or for extracurricular
fun, "there's no hold on themnot a grade, not a majorso
it takes personality to elicit their commitment and work,"
says Kennedy. "That's what makes Finney so special for us."
At BC, Finney inherited a group that had long been on the extracurricular
fringe, rehearsing with a part-time director in Conte Forum and
struggling to attract sufficient numbers to play the symphonic repertoire.
French horn player Shelagh Abate '97, now a professional musician,
remembers the 1990s-era orchestra as fun and musically challenging,
but as too small to be much of a presence at the school. "The
director programmed an excellent classical repertoire, but the downside
was that we were playing with one-third the personnel needed to
complete parts of the orchestra," she says. Players from the
local professional ranks had to be imported for concerts.
Under Finney's direction, rehearsals were moved to Lyons Hall, the
heart of the small but bustling music department. Finney began bringing
in friends from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and other groups for
occasional mentoring sessions with the students. He used his clout
with the hugely popular BC Chorale to arrange shared engagements
that heightened the orchestra's visibility. For the past two years,
the orchestra has played in the chorale's Christmas concert, which
regularly draws a sell-out crowd of some 1,500. "I want to
bring the orchestra up to the caliber of the chorale," says
Finney. "A lot of people didn't even know we had an orchestra.
I thought if that many people could hear the orchestra, it would
really help." It hasin fact, the group oversold all its
own concerts last year.
The students themselves have taken on some respon-sibility for boosting
the orchestra's size and social cachet. Members organized the orchestra's
first recruiting drive this fall, pinning notices around campus
at the start of school and stuffing freshmen orientation packets
with bright yellow flyers promising "glory, fame, and romance"
with orchestra membership. Several weeks later, with 25 newcomers
joining the returning 24, bass player Kara Robbins, a junior who's
been with the symphony since her freshman year, announced a get-acquainted
party. "We play better when we know each other," Robbins
says. "Our first goal is to make the orchestra a family, as
corny as that sounds. After that is established, everyone will want
to try harder, and our reputation will grow from there."
Trumpet player Sujit John, a sophomore, is a recent convert who
joined the orchestra this fall. "The vibe I get," he says,
"is that everyone is looking forward to making beautiful music."
Esprit among the players is such that some members have even taken
to calling the BC Symphony Orchestra "the dorkestra,"
a cheerful rejoinder to the "dork" label sometimes pinned
on musicians. It's the students' way of saying, "We love classical
music and it's cool to love classical music," Birnbaum says.
shelagh abate graduated before Finney took over the orchestra. She
has since returned to BC with the resident Triton Brass Quintet,
which she leads, and she has sat in with the BC orchestra occasionally
in recent years. "John has a positive, magnetic personality,"
she says. "His position here is as an enabler. He's truly interested
in creating a good experience for these students."
Finney's interactions with students during fall auditions make this
clear. The hopefuls have signed up for private, 15-minute sessions,
during which Finney asks them to play scales, perform a short piece
they've prepared, and sight-read. "I don't expect them to play
perfectly, and if they don't, I look for how well they keep going.
It's a good sign if they don't get flustered," he says. Praise
comes easily and is generous; criticism comes not at all. "You
play just beautifully. I could listen to you play all day,"
he tells one prospect. (On the rare occasion when Finney turns someone
away, it's usually because he's filled the orchestra's quota for
a particular instrument.)
A week later, in rehearsal, he feels compelled to ask the horns
to repeat a measure several times. On the third try, they finally
play it right. Finney laughs and quips, "I kind of thought
it was your mistake, but I didn't want to say that. I take the blame
if I possibly can." The hornsand in fact the whole orchestra
laugh too. "I feel lucky someone with his experience is there
to help us," says bassist Robbins afterwards. "He didn't
have to come to direct us. He did it because he loves it."
Sanders is the editor of Boston
College Law Magazine.
Photos:At top, first violinists in the BC Symphony Orchestra include
Sarah Paladino '05 (left) and Jeff Marusak '03 (foreground right).
At middle of page, Finney at a Lyons Hall rehearsal. By Lee Pellegrini