A New Take on Symphonic Music

The Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra onstage at Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory of Music. Nearly 100 strong, the ensemble is the first full symphonic group ever assembled at Berklee.
Phil Farnsworth

Since its debut in 2008, the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra (BCSO) has set out on a course to distinguish itself from other Boston-area orchestras. The ensemble has nearly 100 members and is the first full symphonic group ever assembled at Berklee. Possessing a distinct Berklee twist, the group specializes in programming contemporary works—particularly those by living composers—but juxtaposes them with pieces from the traditional orchestral repertoire.

The orchestra’s November 2, 2012, concert was a clear example. For the event, BCSO music director and conductor Assistant Professor Francisco Noya programmed Maurice Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole and Reinhold Gliére’s Harp Concerto alongside Devolution (A Fantasy for DJ and Orchestra) by Boston composer Anthony De Ritis, and two pieces by revered minimalist composer John Adams.

“We founded the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra because we believe in the importance of performing music of the present times,” says Venezuelan-born Noya. “We want to explore different repertoires and types of music, symphonic material that does not necessarily belong to the traditional symphonic repertoire. BCSO is firmly connected to the roots of the symphonic repertoire. We’re interested in adding to the continuum of great orchestral music.”

In its early concerts, BCSO established a tradition of presenting diverse music works. In the spring 2009 concert, the group presented Koji Kondo’s Legend of Zelda Orchestral Suite derived from music for the Zelda video-game series. Other programs have showcased movie soundtrack themes by John Williams and Klaus Badelt, and music written by Berklee guest artists, including movements from Patrice Rushen’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory and the world premiere of John Patitucci’s Fantasy on a River Theme (with the composer as the work’s six-string bass soloist).

In addition to teaching the members of the student orchestra about past and future directions in music, Noya also features works by winners of the annual student composition contest like Sonya Belousova and Arturo Cardelús as well as winners of the student concerto contest, such as pianists Giorgi Mikadze, harpist Olivia Fortunato, and saxophonist Alexy Sokolov.

Noya also presents works by faculty composers, including Jonathan Bailey Holland, Beth Denisch, and Gernot Wagner. Additionally, the orchestra makes time during its rehearsals to give readings of new student compositions and records projects for the Film Scoring department.

The uniqueness of the orchestra isn’t due solely to its repertoire. The student players have diverse musical interests and come from varied backgrounds, all of which adds color and nuance to the group’s sound. There are Celtic and bluegrass fiddlers in the violin section and jazz musicians in the bass and brass sections blending their sounds with those of classically trained students. “Such diverse approaches are reflected in every aspect of interpretation,” Noya says. “Even if we consider something small, like attacking a note, that diversity of backgrounds will produce a different, unique sonority. I like that very much.”

Melissa Howe, the chair of Berklee’s String Department, says, “Students at Berklee are typically equally comfortable playing music that is ‘on the page’ and music that is ‘off the page’. Plus, they are often focused on taking music of the present and moving it into the future in a unique and compelling way. Combine this forward-thinking attitude with their improvisational experience, and you have the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra.”

All expectations are that BCSO will continue to grow in breadth and depth. Watch for the highly anticipated collaboration between Noya, BCSO, and Danilo Pérez and the Berklee Global Jazz Institute for the orchestra’s spring concert.