Courtyard to the Yamasaki-designed three-building Oberlin Conservatory
Courtyard to the Yamasaki-designed three-building Oberlin Conservatory
Thirty-five miles south-west of Cleveland, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music puts on an astounding 500 free concerts and recitals every year. Founded in 1865, it is the oldest continuously operating conservatory in the United States and has been described as a “cradle of modern thought, a beacon of culture”. Its facilities boast five concert halls, over 150 practice rooms and a staggering 234 Steinway pianos. There are 25 different student ensembles which put on concerts each season, which are shared with the community at large. It has even formed its own commercial record label. In addition to its free concerts, Oberlin has an Artist Recital Series (running since 1878) with some great performers for the 2014-15 season, plus stages two operas and also holds a starry masterclass with great American mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne.

With a career spanning five decades on the world’s opera stages and concert halls, Marilyn Horne was one of the reigning singers on the international circuit, famed for her rich tone and dazzling coloratura which made her the ‘go to’ mezzo, often partnering Dame Joan Sutherland. She is now the Rubin Distinguished Professor of Voice at Oberlin.

In November, she gives two masterclasses (on 14 November and 16 November) with Oberlin students, selected through competitive auditions. These masterclasses are free to other Oberlin students and Series subscribers, but only cost $5 for the public. And if you can’t get to Ohio, both events will be live-streamed from Finney Chapel.

The Opera Theater stages two productions this year – Kurt Weill’s Street Scene and Mozart’s La finta giardiniera. Described as an “American opera”, Street Scene is close to a Broadway musical in feel. Set in Manhattan, it was premiered in 1947 and received a Tony Award for Best Original Score. Weill had already used jazz and American song influences in his work before leaving Germany in the 1930s. In Street Scene, he developed this further, integrating drama and song into his score. Oberlin Opera Theater has nurtured key talents such as mezzo Denyce Graves, soprano Lisa Saffer and tenor Alek Shrader and its productions are always keenly anticipated.

Garrick Ohlsson © Paul Body
Garrick Ohlsson
© Paul Body

La finta giardiniera (The Pretend Garden-Girl – or “Fake with a Rake” as has been suggested!) is an early Mozart opera, composed when he was 18 years old. It was staged at Glyndebourne this year and it contains some delightful music, encompassing a tangled plot based around the Marchioness Violante Onesti, disguised as a gardener (Sandrina) to spy on her former lover, Count Belfiore. Needless to say, complications ensue before they are finally reunited.

In February, the Artist Recital Series continues, with American pianist Garrick Ohlsson performing a recital of Beethoven, Schubert and Scriabin. The works of Alexander Scriabin are of particular interest; during his compositional career, he increasingly adopted an atonal, dissonant style. He was also one of music’s great synesthetes, associating different musical keys with particular colours.

The St Lawrence String Quartet’s championing of new music continues with the première of a work by John Adams alongside familiar Haydn (the ‘Emperor’ Quartet) and Dvořák.

Crossing musical borders, the amplified ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars bring their exuberant style and flair to Finney Chapel on 28 February.

Kohl Building © Kevin Reeves
Kohl Building
© Kevin Reeves

Bass-baritone John Relyea is a popular performer at houses such as the Metropolitan Opera, often playing villains and devils. In recital with pianist Warren Jones, Relyea can portray a wider range of characters within a single recital.

Famous musical alumni include conductors Robert Spano and David Zinman, cellist Steven Isserlis, composer Christopher Rouse and chamber group eighth blackbird. Violinist Jennifer Koh, who graduated in 1997, gives a recital entitled Bach and Beyond III, which includes a new work commissioned from John Harbison.

Another alumnus, Jeremy Denk, is the soloist in Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in an April concert given by neighbours The Cleveland Orchestra. Conductor Susanna Mälkki partners the Bartók concerto with Sibelius’ seascape The Oceanides and Stravinsky’s kaleidoscopic score to his ballet Pétrouchka. Having the Cleveland Orchestra perform such colourful repertoire is a fitting way to close an attractive Artist Recital Series.


This article is sponsored by Oberlin Conservatory of Music.