As the first few notes of Giovanni Gabelli’s Sonata pian e forte sailed over the audience at Woolsey Hall, Robert Oakley wasn’t thinking about the context of 16th Century church music.
He wasn’t thinking about the Brown-Urioste-Canellakis Trio, preparing for their first New Haven gig in the wings. Or the symphony’s Star-Spangled Banner that almost wasn’t, with a few folks taking a knee as the symphony, oblivious, played on.
Nope. Nestled in between friends in row Q, Oakley was trying to spot the violas, and see if he could discern any fancy fingering from halfway across the auditorium. He squinted, titled his head, and then gave up and relaxed his shoulders to the music.
Thursday night, Oakley was one of hundreds to pack Woolsey Hall for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra’s (NHSO) first concert of the season. Playing works from Gabrielli, George Walker, Ludwig van Beethoven, Benjamin Britten and Arturo Márquez, the symphony welcomed K-12 students for its “School Night at the Symphony.”
Among them were several students like Oakley and his friends Cristofer and Johanna Zunun and Audrey Rivetto, there with local nonprofit Music Haven. Now accustomed to attending the season opener—Music Haven has ritualized this pilgrimage for several years, and Oakley pegged this as his fourth year and eighth performance—Oakley said he was particularly excited for this year’s performance. Marquez’ Danzón No. 2, a contemporary homage to Mexico by a living Mexican composer, had made the program.
In his own practice as a violist, Oakley is learning to play the piece, and said he is struggling mightily with the quick and nimble fingering required. This opener was also one of his last chances to get perspective as a Music Haven student: He is a senior at Wilbur Cross High School, and expects to be in college a year from now. After landing a 1590 on his SATs, he has applied to Yale and Southern Connecticut State University among others.
Those factors together made him glad to show up Thursday, he said, arriving at a pre-concert pizza party a backpack of AP Music Theory homework and unsolicited chemistry advice for Rivetto, who had an AP Chemistry exam the next day. As the pored over her notes on stoichiometry, Oakley said that he was expecting “to learn something about fingering on the viola” before the evening’s concert was over.
“It’s so fire,” he said of Danzón No. 2. “But you don’t understand how hard this is for viola. I want to learn how to be better. As in, when to come in, and how expressive I should be.” He pulled out his sheet music for the piece, already littered with a few notes in pencil. It would be his guide when the time came, he said.
He added that he couldn’t remember ever being this excited for a symphony show. A few years ago, that wasn’t the case. He recalled watching a guest violinist stumble over Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, and not wanting to stay for the rest of the performance.
“I was like: ‘Do better sis,”” he said, launching into an a cappella rendition of the piece with Zunun and Rivetto. “I wasn’t really on the classical music train at that time, but I was getting there.”
“Then we brought him over to the dark side,” Zunun said.
Ensconced in theconcert hall, those members of the “dark side” didn’t have long to wait to see if this year’s performance would pass muster. As the NHSO transitioned from the national anthem (“Well, that was quite an achievement to get through the national anthem without any incident,” said William Boughton to uncomfortable laughter and more apt silence) to Sonata pian e forte, they and fellow students perked up in their seats, some leaning forward or resting their chins on their palms. A few rows forward in row M, 13-year-old cellist Elena Hartley watched carefully, seeing if she might learn any tricks to overcome her stage fright.
A sweeping work of brass, Gabrielli’s Sonata coasted over the audience. It’s not unlike dawn breaking—swooping and revelatory in a way that feels inevitable, and infinite. Everything drips in sound: Long fingers of trumpet and trombone extend themselves rapidly in the space, reaching carefully around everything they can touch. In the loud and quiet fluctuations designed for St. Mark's Basilica, a sort of wonderment abounds, setting in the gut a sort of warm awe that is both medieval chant and early modern, on the precipice of something other worldly.
So too with Beethoven’s Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C Major, Op. 56. Preceded by Walker’s Lyric for Strings— a sort of palate cleanser with the quality of breath—it’s a piece that feels inevitably masculine, with a slow build and ultimate denouement that has Beethoven written all over it.
But in Michael Brown, Elena Urioste, and Nick Canellakis’s careful hands, the piece became one of humor and intense, witty repartee. An electric, wild flirtation flew through the air between violin and cello for all three movements, drawing a few smiles and wide eyes from the Music Haven block of seats. Canellakis is a wonderfully emotive musician, with a wiry body that plays in fits and starts, and wraps around his cello like it is the force from which he draws life. Urioste too throws her whole body into the music, the back and forth between violin and cello transformed into fiery banter, a sensuous discussion that cannot wait a moment longer.
“It was amazing,” said Oakley at intermission, debating whether to introduce himself to the trio (he ultimately did not, suddenly rendered shy). “I especially loved the dialogue between the violin and the cello. It was hilarious.”
“I feel like, I could get a lot of the musical jokes,” he added. “Why they do certain articulations. I wish I had that kind of articulated tone. If I could play that well, I’d be set for life.”
The lights dimmed and something beeped around the him. It was time for the moment he’d been waiting for. Oakley, who called the trio “a special bonus” but maintained that he was most excited for Danzón, headed back inside with a big smile plastered on his face.
No sooner had he taken his seat than musicians sat bolt upright on the stage, and placed their instruments in position. He whipped out the piece of music from his backpack, following along with a finger.
The beginning of Danzón No. 2 is bouncy and unassuming, with a sort of ebullient woodwind fizz that’s very pleasant. But it’s a fake out: The work is majestic and sweeping, with melodies that take the listener by the hand and guide them through the Mexican countryside and Veracruz region from which Márquez hails. After a loping jaunt of a beginning, the piece becomes dramatic, sexy and slightly epic, deeply percussive as it blends dance rhythms with a blissful spew of strings.
There are moments of respite: oboe clear and winding as birdsong, with brassy flights to somewhere mountainous and rugged. The whole thing is classical and sensuous, with an ending that hammers through one’s chest.
As the piece ended, Oakley grabbed his things and ran out of Woolsey, trying to make it home by curfew. It seemed that he was in search of not a glass slipper, but a blank notepad where he could record everything he had just heard. By the time Britten’s atonal, loop-like “Four Sea Interludes” broke out over the crowd, he was on his way home to do that.
“I really wanted to dance when the music started to swell with the orchestra playing all together,” Oakley said afterwards by text message. “And I learned some interesting things from the viola section, like which parts of the piece the viola really comes out n, and also certain sections of the funky rhythm to really express.”
It was “definitely” his favorite piece of the night, he added. “I’m still humming the main theme!”