Volume 94, Issue 96

Thursday, March 22, 2001


Appointment with Brahms

Appointment with Brahms

Lauren Starr/Gazette

By Hisham Safieddine
Gazette Staff

Question: How many classical music concerts have you attended in the last year? If your answer is none, you need the Western Symphony Orchestra – badly!

Disguised as a Gazette reporter, I set out to discover the world I have always coveted, but never truly knew: the world of classical music in the making.

The Western Student Symphony Orchestra is joining hands with four Western Choirs, in an epic performance of one of Brahm's masterpieces, A German Requiem. Close to 80 musicians and 200 singers will be displaying their talent in an annual joint appearance at Alumni Hall this Sunday at 3 p.m..

But the stage performance is only the end of the story. It all begins in the halls and rooms of Western's music building, where young artists, musicians and singers alike, rehearse and re-rehearse their roles in the re-creation of a classic piece of art that has endured for decades.

Two violin players, Robyn Bastian and Cynthia Konopa, expressed their thoughts and feelings about their experience as members of the orchestra. Bastian, a first-year music student, recollected attending her first few rehearsals at the beginning of the year.

"At first you feel shy to play out, because your skills aren't as developed as others. But then, as time goes on, you learn so much from watching others play, and you become more comfortable and confident of what you are doing."

Although Bastian admits practicing everyday requires a lot of devotion and commitment, she said she does not regret becoming a music student. "The hard work we put into practice pays off in the end," she explained.

Konopa, who will graduate this spring, could not agree more. She began playing music at the age of three, and grew to recognize the challenging aspect of becoming a professional performer. "Trying to perfect one's ability to excel in music is not an easy task. But the more you practice, the easier it becomes to read the score efficiently and improve your playing techniques," she said.

Being a music student however, is not merely about reading music scores, going to rehearsals or appearing on stage. Studying music is just as much about securing a stable job after graduation as finding the opportunity to pursue one's ambitions in the mercurial world of music. This is especially true in the case of students wishing to become professional performers who, instead get involved in the education sector.

"[Despite] growing up in a home environment where classical music was constantly in the background, I realized there is not much of an appreciation for this type of music in North America," Konopa said. "In spite of the faculty's support and provision of an excellent learning environment, the secret to landing a decent placement in a professional orchestra or any other ensemble is building strong connections with people in the music industry."

Konopa is not taking any chances and has decided to apply to teacher's college to become a music teacher, if her hopes of joining a performing ensemble after she graduates do not work out. Her determination to pursue her vocation is further strengthened by her family's unconditional support, something Bastian believes is also fortunate to have.

"Knowing your parents are behind you, helps you have faith in yourself and motivates you to go the extra mile to achieve your full potential," she said.

One Western graduate who is leading a successful career in music is Dave Howard. Howard, who is currently a bassoon player in the London Symphony Orchestra, spoke of the seminal role his formative years of training have had on his later years as a professional musician.

His advice to students seeking employment opportunities is to know their instruments inside out, to become familiar with the audition process and to establish good contacts, through their professors and with influential people in the music business.

"Naturally, playing with the university orchestra is the first transitional step in the right direction," Howard suggested.

Gerome Summers, managing director and conductor of the orchestra since 1981, emphasized the heuristic role of the orchestra. "The orchestra is part of the course structure for all programs in music. It is intended to furnish the students with the hands-on experience they need in order to develop their musical skills to the fullest," he said.

"As a matter of fact, many of the students in the orchestra in the past, and at present, have promising talents and are destined to become stars of success. Unfortunately, the London community does not always recognize its own talent and that is why I like to call our orchestra Canada's best kept secret."

On a more personal level, Summers said he enjoys working with students. Although conducting a student orchestra is a challenging task, and at times can be quite daunting, Summers described his involvement with the orchestra as extremely rewarding.

In fact, everyone I spoke to conveyed a sense of self-gratification and fulfillment that accompanies the reconstruction and presentation of a musical work.

For the students, the satisfaction they get from participating in music recitals overrides any other concerns or obstacles they face along the way. According to Bastion, one has to sacrifice some things in their life if one wishes to devote themselves to music.

"If you love music this much, who cares if you do not end up making as much money as fellow students do in other disciplines," she explained.

An appreciation for the value of taking part in music productions is equally shared by music professor, Gerald Neufeld, who is substituting for Summers as conductor of the orchestra and choirs in the upcoming performance.

Neufeld revealed the secret behind the enduring effect classical music has on those who invite themselves into its inner circle. The secret is undoubtedly the ability this type of music has, to be constantly re-interpreted in different modes and tones expressive of the colorful and varying emotions of the human spirit.

"Composers in general, give birth to their music," Neufeld explained. "Some of it is never performed. Some has a very short life, but other music acquires a life of its own. Classical music is of the latter type. It seems it almost attains a status of immortality."

Neufeld's praise for classical music might seem out of place for people who consider this genre of music the perfect antidote for insomnia disorders. As Bastian pointed out, most people, when they think of classical music, think of music that is going to put them to sleep.

Nonetheless, she noted the more one listens to classical music, the more one discovers the richness of its content and the depth of emotions it generates.

Bastian's words echoed my own sentiments. For someone like myself, who regards listening to classical music akin to a religious experience, the overflowing power of this music to touch one's soul in the most profound way, is a continual source of awe and inspiration.

But you do not have to be a classical music fanatic like me, to be able to savour the emotionally charged taste of music notes in a Brahms Requiem or a Beethoven symphony. Like any other genre of music, classical music is one mode of artistic expression that will enrich your spiritual experience and expand your outlook on the divine world of human creativity.

Unlike rock music and more like sex, listening to classical music is enjoyed best with a sober mind and a drunken soul. So save your beer for later this Sunday, and check out Brahm's Requiem showcased the Western style.

The opening performance will be in Alumni Hall at 3 p.m., so don't be late, because Brahms and his gifted heralds are waiting – and they are worth it!

Graphics by Grant Donaldson

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