Clowes Memorial Hall was filled with the musical colors of Claude Debussy Sunday.
They were heard as though through translucent clouds in the impressionist style that is synonymous with the name of this influential French composer.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth.
The Butler Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Richard Auldon Clark, presented a concert of Debussy’s orchestral music as part of the Jordan College of the Arts’ Debussy Celebration.
Clark opened the program with a work from American Charles Ives, his “Variations on America,” the only piece from the colonies on the concert.
Almost immediately, the strengths and shortcomings of the orchestra were made clear.
The brilliant bitonal colors of the piece were abundantly present, and the orchestra came across as a well- balanced instrument.
The individual lines cut through the texture when appropriate, and the full orchestral sound was powerful.
In particular, the strings and percussion came across well in this performance.
The winds performed admirably, but often solo lines were not cleanly passed between sections.
Minor problems with intonation aside, the orchestra was marred by perhaps the most common and unfortunate shortcoming of student orchestras—lack of internal musical phrasing.
This would become more apparent as the first half of the concert went on.
The second piece on the program was one of Debussy’s best-known orchestral pieces, “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”
The piece is inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem ”L’Après-midi d’un Faune” and afforded the first opportunity for BSO to show its presentation of Debussy’s music.
The opening flute solo was sublime and sensitive. The rest of the wind section quickly recovered from a bad opening attack, and the solo flute and oboe lines again came across simply and passionately.
The strings were lush and communicated well, especially with regard to phrase endings.
The endings were a bit too abrupt in Clark’s interpretation, but the orchestra played them consistently.
Overall though, the subtle growths and falls of the phrases were unsatisfyingly plain.
The orchestra would have been much more convincing if these lines had always been played with direction.
Tenor Thomas Studebaker joined the BSO in a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “On Wenlock Edge” before intermission.
Studebaker appears to be everywhere this semester, singing with the Butler Wind Ensemble in September.
The orchestra, especially the string section, should be commended on its communication with Studebaker, but this piece was underwhelming.
Studebaker sang with a limited dynamic range, which tempered the impact of the English songs.
Granted, he did not use a microphone and had to constantly be heard over the orchestra.
The acoustics of Clowes are also not the best for large ensembles with solo singers.
Clark’s interpretation was well heeded by the orchestra, which played with a passion unmatched by Studebaker.
Clark’s long pauses, though, seemed unnatural.
After intermission, the BSO was a completely different orchestra.
Debussy’s “Nocturnes” was very engaging, and the orchestra had something to say.
The internal phrases were much more developed, which made listening more satisfying.
The winds, in particular, came across well in this piece.
Clark and the orchestra did not present the last movement of the “Nocturnes,” which was extremely disappointing considering how well the musicians played the first two.
Debussy’s “Iberia: Images for Orchestra, No. 2” concluded the program.
Again, the phrases were more developed.
Each section of the orchestra played well. The strings sang out, the flute and winds played with humor and passion and the percussion was accurate and well- balanced.
Slight disagreements about tempo in a few spots did not detract from the conveyance of the piece.
Overall, the orchestra appeared stronger than perhaps at any other concert in the past three years, with the notable exception of Gustav Mahler’s third symphony in February.
The players’ command of Debussy’s color palette was incredible, and they handled the contrapuntal texture of the music with ease.
While not perfect, the BSO is a great artistic organization on campus.
And with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra locked out downtown, the BSO could drastically improve its reputation in central Indiana this semester.