Symphony Orchestra’s fall concert showcases student composers and underrepresented musicians

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On the stage of Thorne Hall, the Occidental Symphony Orchestra’s bass section follows along to the sheet music of “Dances in the Canebrakes” by Florence Price, at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Nov. 5, 2022. Emma Cho/The Occidental

The lights dimmed and a quiet hush filled Thorne Hall. With a bang, the notes of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” were lifted off the sheet music and into the audience — commencing Occidental’s annual fall orchestra concert Nov. 5.

Under the baton of Chris Kim, Choi Family Director of Instrumental Music, the Occidental Symphony Orchestra performed five compositions that evening. The concert featured pieces by famous composers BernsteinSamuel Coleridge-Taylor and Florence Price. These figures were not chosen at random; Kim said he tries to include pieces written by women and composers of color, as classical music has a rich history with diverse composers from many countries.

“Florence Price and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor [are] African American composers who are long neglected. But I think, thankfully, they’re having a resurgence of representation of their music,” Kim said. “I think sometimes classical music is often thought of as just the Western canon, only European old white composers. So it’s important for our students to experience not just Beethoven and Brahms but also composers of color, composers who were underrepresented in the past.”

The Occidental Symphony Orchestra performed two pieces by Price, who was the first Black woman to have her work performed by a major American orchestra. According to program notes written by percussionist G Northway (junior), Price’s piece “Dances in the Canebrakes” reimagines the arts as a source of Black liberation by combining cultural memory with popular dance tunes of her era.

The other composition by Price, “The Oak,” was arranged for the Occidental Symphony Orchestra by music composition major John Donello (junior).

“I think it’s great that [Kim is] a part of Oxy because we get to be able to be a part of [his goals] and help him bring light to others who are a little lesser known,” Donello said.

During the arrangement process, Donello said he was tasked with taking parts from the original score and rewriting them for different instruments, as the orchestra currently does not have a full brass section.

“It was super cool to see [Price’s] different way of writing music that wouldn’t be traditional classical music,” Donello said. “Basically, my goal is to not change the score as much as possible with what we have available. My job is just to keep Florence Price’s ideas alive as much as I can.”

Chris Kim conducts the Occidental Symphony Orchestra through “Reverie,” a composition by Occidental’s Forrest Love (senior) under the lights of Thorne Hall at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Nov. 5, 2022. Emma Cho/The Occidental

Students at Occidental compose pieces for the orchestra too. Alongside Bernstein, Coleridge-Taylor and Price is Occidental’s very own student composer: Forrest Love (senior). This is not the first time the Occidental Symphony Orchestra has performed a student’s work; Kim said he intends to feature at least one student composer per concert, and that the music composition program at Occidental is vibrant.

“I think it’s really important for students to see their peers who are working on [composing music]. And so [students] get to not just play pieces by dead white guys, but people who are alive and walking amongst them on campus,” Kim said.

Love’s composition was called “Reverie,” which he said was inspired by the daydreams he had while writing the piece. Love said the experience of making “Reverie” for the orchestra was nerve-racking, but it was incredible to see it culminate in a great performance.

“It was an amazing experience hearing an orchestra play my own music. Anytime musicians bring your own music to life it is magical. I’ve had smaller chamber groups of three to four people play my pieces which is very rewarding but it doesn’t compare to the feeling of an orchestra,” Love said via email.

Forty-four Occidental student musicians — along with two community members and one Occidental alum — are listed on the roster of this year’s fall concert, with students from a variety of majors including Biology, Computer Science, Diplomacy and World Affairs and Sociology. Regardless of a student’s major or career interest, Kim said that music is an important outlet of expression. Through music or other modes of art, Kim said that people can express emotions that can’t be expressed with words.

“Music is such a unifying force. In the end, we’re all human beings who have an innate need to communicate. And not having an outlet like this, I think that’s a surefire way of staying stressed,” Kim said. “Whether it be playing an instrument and playing it in a group, or going to our studio, and working on clay or being a dancer — I think these are really important outlets for us as human beings, as students to have as part of our life.”

The music department will hold six more events this semester, including the Chamber Music Concert on Nov. 16 at Bird Studio and the Glee Club Winter Concert on Dec. 4 at Herrick Chapel. The Occidental Symphony Orchestra holds two concerts in the spring semester.

Contact Emma Cho at echo2@oxy.edu.