Arts & Events

A layman’s take on orchestral brilliance

By Matthew Gulick

To mark the occasion of Leonard Berstein’s would-be 100th year on earth, the University of Puget Sound Symphony Orchestra performed “Polyglot: Celebrating the Legacy of Leonard Bernstein in Contemporary Music.” The 67-piece orchestra played six pieces written by contemporary composers.

Conductor and assistant professor Anna Wittstruck introduced the event after the orchestra’s first piece. The former Interim Music Director and Conductor of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra and Stanford Philharmonia, Wittstruck has conducted across the globe with sold-out concerts in Mexico City and Havana, Cuba. Wittstruck began at Puget Sound in fall 2017. In her eloquent introduction, Wittstruck described how much the students had enjoyed preparing for the performance.

“It’s so invigorating to them to play music by people that are alive,” she said.

Opening with “To Spring — An Overture” by Daniel Perttu, they followed it with Marilyn Shrude’s “Libro d’Ore” then “Anadyr” by Scott Lee. After intermission, the symphony played “Concertino for Flute and Orchstra” by Gregory Yasinitsky, a jazz combo interpretation of Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” and then closed with “Three Dance Episodes” from another of his musicals, “On the Town.”

“By the last brash cord of ‘On the Town,’ we’ve been all over the musical map.” Wittstruck said.

“Among different sounds and experiences, commonalities emerge. The Perttu and Shrude were both inspired by poetry, while Lee and Yasinitsky incorporate popular jazz idioms. This music is bound by love, some literally so: the Pretty, Shrude, and Yanitsky were all written for family members. Most of all, these composers make musical composition a living practice, and their presence here embodies a Bernstein-like commitment to the future of music and music education,” Wittsruck said.

Despite both deriving from poetry, this musical contrast is clear between the first two pieces. Perttu’s lyric opener evokes romantic notions of new life, growth and harmony, while Shrude’s piece felt far more complicated, darker and lonely.

The audience, which consisted of conductors from across the country on campus for some sort of conference and a substantial proportion of parents of performers, obviously differed from myself in knowledge about orchestral music. Unfortunately, they do not write for The Trail.

Though there were other students in attendance, they formed a small minority of the listening body. As such, this led me to reflect on the nature of the School of Music here at Puget Sound. For one, I was surprised by who I recognized among the performers. Some people I knew but had no notion they were so musically inclined. Others I recognized in classic Puget Sound fashion, by sight only. Many more I had never encountered in my four years at this institution. This, I feel, demonstrates the peculiarly insular nature of the music department. I mention this not as some sort of criticism, but rather in admiration of the unique community that these students form, a self-contained world between Thompson and Jones dedicated to perfecting their sonic art. Of course, students from different disciplines perform in various ensembles, so this is likely only the experience of students like myself, those who have never dreamed of professional sound-making.

The current state of orchestral music is a big question mark to me. I have never experienced the medium firsthand, and outside free concerts at the University, it appears to be an art form that requires time and money to appreciate with any depth. This is not to say it is impossible to learn to love, but I do wonder how people under 25 are out there becoming educated in the medium. Frankly, from where I’m sitting, it appears to be the choice of aging individuals from a bygone era of music production. Additionally, this kind of music demands the concerted attention that our current multi-tasking, connected, high-paced society has atrophied to the point of nonexistence. For better or worse, people today are not honing the skills needed to appreciate symphonies. Perhaps this is only a personal failing, but I often found my thoughts wandering far from the incredible music surrounding me.

Again, and I cannot reiterate this enough, this is merely my uneducated perspective on the topic. Perhaps I am mistaken, and enjoyment of orchestral music does not require the kind of time, money and education that it appears to, but judging by the audience demographics at this concert it would appear to be the case.

In all, “Polyglot” provided a highly accessible opportunity to experience this impressive art form.

For more information on upcoming performances visit

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