Berklee Beat: New Traditions

At a typical string orchestra performance, you might expect to hear a piece like Edvard Grieg's Holberg Suite, followed perhaps by Barber's "Adagio" or a Vivaldi concerto. At the debut concert by the newly revamped Berklee String Orchestra, things went a bit differently. String Department Chair Matt Glaser and the orchestra's conductor, Associate Professor Eugene Friesen, believe that perfect companions to the Grieg are a 12-bar blues with a hot cello solo followed by a Celtic reel complete with a step-dancing second violinist.

The orchestra's performance on December 20 showcased music from many styles, including a funky original tune that demonstrated that it is possible for string players to lay down a groove as solid as a conventional rhythm section. Improvised solos by cellist Rushad Eggleston, violist Olivier Samouillal, and violinist Peter Polansky showed that strings are also extremely well-suited to the blues.

Glaser feels that it is safe to say that only at a Berklee String Orchestra concert might you see a player put down his instrument, take center stage and soulfuly sing "My One and Only Love" and then return to his seat for a Klezmer tune as did violist/vocalist Michael Harris.

"Whenever you see a guy come out from the viola section and sing like that, you know it's not a typical string section," said Glaser.

Atypical, but a program like the one described above should be anticipated coming from a string department like Berklee's, where classical, jazz, folk, and funk are all revered, and improvisation is an essential skill.

Although the college has had a string orchestra in the past, its focus on classical repertoire did not fully reflect the diversity of the String Department's curriculum. During the fall 1999 semester, the orchestra's repertoire was expanded to include many of the musical styles that the department has been teaching for years.

The orchestra will continue to help string players develop familiarity with classical music and technique. However, a new emphasis on improvisation and groove will teach the skills needed to play contemporary music, reaching above and beyond traditional orchestra training. Conductor Friesen seeks to create a repertoire featuring music that is "grooving, rhythmic, and spiritual at the same time."

Another goal of both Friesen and Glaser is to showcase the unique abilities of individual string players such as Celtic fiddlers Hanneke Cassel and Laura Cortese.

"We want to combine the discipline of a great orchestra playing with the kind of wildness that great soloists have," Friesen said. "We're trying to capture within the ensemble the excitement that is associated with improvised solo playing."

Friesen, a cellist, and Glaser, a violinist, have spent their careers exploring the improvisational and rhythmic capabilities of strings. They hope the Berklee String Orchestra will play a role in redefining the parameters of string music and altering stereotypes about string players.

"String players have a reputation for having a lousy sense of rhythm," Friesen said. "But the players I have met at Berklee are different because they love rhythm and are looking for a way to express that."

While the orchestra's primary focus is on developing the skills of its players, in the future, Glaser says, it may also become an outlet for Berklee composers. Plans are underway for a composition contest where the winner's piece would be played in the Berklee Performance Center. Glaser also envisions the 25-piece ensemble becoming the core of a full orchestra with full wind, brass, and percussion sections.

For the present, the Berklee String Orchestra is working at merging the revered tradition of orchestral string playing with the spontaneity of improvised, groove-based music. No mean feat.

"We're changing the course of Western civilization," Friesen joked. "But seriously, here at Berklee, we are better positioned to change the role of string players than anyone else."


— Sarah Godcher