Last night’s orchestra performance at von der Mehden was special, featuring the winners of the 2018 Aria Competition and Concerto Competition, Teryn Kuzman and violinist Andy Peng, respectively. UConn’s orchestral musicians never cease to impress, flawlessly working through musical masterworks with top-notch professionalism and talent.
The show opened with a “Overture to Treemonisha” by Scott Joplin. The work features both classic opera structure and a bit of Joplin’s own stylistic flare, culminating in a very entertaining yet fairly short piece. The next piece was “Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47” by Jean Sibelius, featuring Peng. This piece was haunting beautiful, thanks in no small part to the outstanding work done by Peng on the violin. Peng’s playing could be slow and heartbreaking and suddenly furiously quick. The orchestra worked together very well to give the whole work incredibly deep feeling and resonance. This was easily the most moving piece of the night.
The second half of the performance began with two pieces by Mozart and Beethoven, featuring vocals by Kuzma. Kuzma has a beautiful soprano voice and showed off both her range and power. Her shining moment was at the close of Beethoven’s “O war ich schon mit dir vereint,” where she truly put all of her skill to work. Kuzma also had great stage presence, showing strong emotion and confidence during both pieces, even participating in a quick visual gag with conductor Paul McShee.
The final piece was the recently discovered “Montgomery Variations for Symphony Orchestra” by Margaret Bonds. Bonds was an African American child prodigy from Chicago. An accomplished pianist, Bonds became one of the first African American women to earn an undergraduate and graduate degree, attending Northwestern University. Bonds was inspired to write the piece after reading “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Even though Bonds wrote the piece way back in 1964, it was never performed live until now. The manuscript containing the piece was found in a dumpster in New York City, where it was saved and donated to Georgetown University. In order to play it last night, three UConn students worked with McShee to meticulously transfer the contents of the manuscript into an online program to create sheet music for the whole orchestra.
The piece itself was very beautiful, reminiscent of a score from a classic Hollywood epic like “Ben-Hur” or “The Ten Commandments.” Multiple styles were explored throughout, including jazz and bluegrass. The main theme repeated in the work is derived from “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” a traditional African American spiritual song. Bonds used it to reflect the Civil Rights movement both literally and figuratively marching forward.
It is a real shame that this piece was never discovered until after Bonds’ death, as this is a fantastic musical journey. Hopefully, UConn’s new publication and performance of the work will raise awareness for it and inspire other orchestras to play it.
Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.