Not Your Typical College Orchestra
December 17, 2015
By Rachel Rogol
This year, 80 Amherst students—nearly 5 percent of the student body—play in the Amherst Symphony Orchestra (ASO), making it one of the largest all-student orchestras among liberal arts colleges in the nation.
“Outside of a conservatory setting, this is probably the largest all-student orchestra among liberal arts colleges that plays at such a high level,” says conductor Mark Swanson. Since 2001, Swanson has transformed the ASO from a small college orchestra half composed of hired local professionals to an orchestra ranging in size from 60 to 80 student musicians.
Surprisingly, almost all of the students in Amherst’s orchestra are non-music majors. Leonard Yoon ’18, a chemistry major who plays principal clarinet, says having opportunities to play music, but not necessarily major in it, factored into his college decision-making process.
“I did music through high school and I wanted to go to a college that had a strong music program,” Yoon says. “That was a big draw for me coming here.” He’s currently enrolled in the ASO for class credit, and also takes clarinet lessons for class credit through the music department.
In October, Yoon traveled with fellow student musicians for a milestone performance in New York City, where all 80 students presented a vibrant French program at the multi-disciplinary performing arts center Symphony Space. “Being there with the orchestra was a great experience,” Yoon says. “I think it speaks to Mark’s dedication to make the trip happen, and that everyone envisioned it to be a big concert, and I think it turned out that way.”
Now in his 15th year with the ASO, Swanson says he decided to devote the entire 2015–16 season to French musical masterpieces of the late 19th and early 20th century. “Part of my job is to choose music [the students will] really enjoy, but also challenge them,” he says.
On Dec. 12, Amherst alumni singers joined current orchestra students for a musical rendition of Les Misérables, the Broadway musical created by the French team of Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg based on Victor Hugo’s novel. In the spring semester, they'll perform works by French composers Francis Poulenc and César Franck, in addition to selections from the opera Carmen (1875) by Georges Bizet.
For more information about the ASO's spring performances, visit www.amherstsymphonyorchestra.com.
Images from the Dec. 12 performance of Les Misérables: