BC Seal Boston College Magazine Winter 2001
current issue
Q and A
Works and Days
Letters to the Editor
BCM Home
Contact BCM
Coming Events
Sound system

The rebirth of a symphony orchestra

Photo of John Finney conductingIt's 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 orchestra—strings 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 members—the largest ensemble in Finney's four years as director and distinguished artist-in-residence at BC.

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 oeuvre.

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."

photo of BC's Symphony OrchestraThe 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 senior lecturer.

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 them—not a grade, not a major—so 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 has—in 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 horns—and 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."

Vicki Sanders

Vicki 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

Top of page

Linden Lane
. . .
  »  First night
  »  Sound system
  »  Study group
  »  Journey's end
  »  What's up, Buttercup?
  » The Blue Island log of Herman Gill
  » Stress fractures
  » Studying for the barre
  » Memorial day
  »  Prevailing haze
  » House blend
  »  News briefs
related links
. . .
  »  More on John Finney
. . .
  »  Concerts at Boston College

Alumni Home
BC Home

© Copyright 2002 The Trustees of Boston College