Bienen graduate students conduct Northwestern Symphony Orchestra holiday concert


Joanne Haner/The Daily Northwestern

Pick-Staiger Concert Hall is home to several Bienen concerts each year.

Alexa Crowder, Reporter

This holiday season, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall will be filled with the sounds of festive classics like Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” and Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” 

The Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra will play a one-night-only holiday concert Saturday, which doubles as a graduate conducting student showcase.

The concert is a rarity within the Bienen School of Music, since the orchestra scarcely puts on holiday performances. Bienen junior and first violin Kirsten Lee said the exception stems from Bienen Prof. Victor Yampolsky’s impending retirement, as he fills his last year at NU with pieces that are personally meaningful to him.

Yampolsky assigned six graduate students from Bienen one piece each to conduct. Alexander Chen, a first-year graduate student in Bienen’s conducting program, will conduct Mozart’s “Exsultate, jubilate.” 

“My job is to prepare the orchestra to play this piece,” Chen said. “They’re very talented students. I’m there to help them play what I know they can play, which is really high quality music.”

“Exsultate, jubilate” also features soprano soloist, vocal performance graduate student Helaine Liebman. Chen said coordinating the vocalist with the orchestra provides an extra challenge in conducting the piece. 

Rehearsals in the concert hall began in mid-November, but the assistant conductors’ preparation started well before then. Bienen second-year graduate student Jake Taniguchi, another assistant conductor, had already engaged deeply with his piece before setting foot on the stage.

“You need to be the expert on that piece — you need to study the music and look at the music and understand the music,” Taniguchi said. “You cannot be learning a piece along with the group. You are now the teacher.”

The rotation of assistant conductors differs from a typical NUSO concert, where Yampolsky would be at the helm for the entirety of the performance. Lee noticed each of the six graduate students has a unique style.

Lee is taking an advanced conducting course this quarter and said she has enjoyed watching older students apply the skills she’s learning in class. She’s been particularly influenced by her classmate Moyue Zhou, a second-year graduate assistant conductor. 

“They’re all really passionate about the music that they’re conducting, and about music in general,” Lee said. “It’s actually really inspiring to watch all of them improve musically.”

Taniguchi said the collaboration between student conductors and ensemble members will make the concert special for performers and audience members alike.

Lee and Chen said they appreciate the special festive theme, especially its relation with both their childhood memories. Both musicians said they often played “Sleigh Ride” with their youth orchestras, as did most of NUSO.

“In the first rehearsal when we did (‘Sleigh Ride’), everyone was just in a good mood,” Chen said. “I want the audience to leave and be like, ‘Wow, that put me in a good mood. I’m ready for the holidays now.’”


Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @AlexaCrowder

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