For over a century, the Vassar College Orchestra has been in the business of making music, challenging societal norms and building community.
In light of its 115th anniversary this year, the Vassar College Orchestra will be celebrating with its first spring concert on Saturday, March 5 at 8 p.m. in Skinner Hall, and will be webcast for those not able to attend. Directed by Professor Eduardo Navega, the program will feature works by Février, Beethoven, Delibes, Albeniz and Gomes.
Every year, Vassar Orchestra’s spring programming centers on its featured student soloists, the winners of Vassar’s annual Soloist Competition. The Soloist Competition is held each fall semester to provide Vassar vocalists and instrumentalists with the opportunity to perform alongside the orchestra. “Before they apply, they consult with me about their pieces that they’re doing … If they want to do a piece that requires an orchestra that we don’t have, players that we don’t have, then I will suggest that they do something else,” said Navega.
The March 5 concert will highlight two winners of the Soloist Competition: soprano Ruby Pierce ’16 will be featured on Delibes’ Indian Bell Song from “Lakme,” as well as pianist Jenny Zheng ’18 on Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major.
Zheng wrote in an emailed statement, “I chose this particular Beethoven concerto, the fourth one, because it’s like a chamber music piece on a bigger scale. The third and fifth concertos are much more grand and dramatic like what people think of when they think of Beethoven, but the fourth one offers a more intimate sound.” She continued, “Playing with an orchestra is a lot more fun in some ways because you’re not alone on stage and it’s a collaborative effort, but at the same time, it can be more nerve racking because so many people are depending on you.”
This sense of collaboration is a widely-echoed sentiment. Orchestra member Andy Thompson ’18 affirmed, “It’s an incredible experience to come together with 60 strangers and spend five hours a week working together and communicating with each other through music. You will often never get to know many of them and know nothing about them other than that they share your passion and dedication to music.”
Unsurprisingly, the tradition of dedication to music at Vassar is not new. “The symphony orchestra of Vassar College gave its first concert on May the 17th, 1901,” explained Navega. With the exception of wartime years, “We have programs for every single concert the orchestra ever did.”
Due to Vassar’s history as an all-female college, the orchestra’s first-documented 1901 program features a roster comprised entirely of women. In light of the fading notion that certain instruments are more feminine or masculine, the first orchestra’s instrumental composition differed almost entirely from that of today’s ensemble.
“Indeed, it was a women’s college, so they did have a lack of some instruments. For example, there were not too many women in the early to mid-20th century that would play trombone, or trumpet for that matter,” explained Navega.
He continued, “Nowadays, thank God, all of the girls play everything, as they should, but at some point it wasn’t very ladylike to play trombone.”
While the female musicians of Vassar were once expected to play traditionally feminine instruments, like harp or flute, the introduction of co-education to Vassar in 1969 brought with it an entirely new sound to the orchestra, and eventually a new way of thinking as well. Navega explained, “When the college became co-ed, you have lots of boys coming in and those boys would play instruments that normally the girls would not. And now, of course, our tuba player is a girl, which is awesome. We have an all-female wind quintet.”
Member of Vassar’s all-female wind quintet Fiona Hart ’18 echoes Navega’s sentiments. “Instruments should not be gendered. There’s this understanding that no matter what field you’re in, men are better … Gender is independent of your ability to play the oboe.”
Navega continues to look to the future of the ensemble for inspiration, while paying respects to its rich and longstanding history. “Before I came here, I worked with professional orchestras … This is actually the first student orchestra under my direction, and I have to say, I much prefer it.”
He continued, “Even though a student orchestra might limit the repertoire that you could do…I don’t mind that, because having a student orchestra is always a discovery for them. So you’re giving something to them that they’re not bored with yet, they’re still fascinated by all of those things.”
Navega began his work at Vassar in 1999 as a part-time conductor, and is now the director of the orchestra and head of the chamber music program, as well as a lecturer in music. “Now, it’s a profession that requires more from me, to be able to give something to the students. It’s more than conducting, it’s teaching, really.”
To some though, it might even be more than teaching. For many professional orchestras, sexism doesn’t just dictate which instruments women can play, it bars them from the playing anything at all. According to The Guardian, women auditioning for elite orchestras are 50 percent more likely to make it past preliminary rounds if the auditions are conducted blindly.
115 years, 18 conductors and a multitude of ardent musicians later, the spirit of the Vassar Orchestra endures–and so do the values of this progressive institution. “We do this for the students,” Navega emphasizes. “It’s the students playing for the students.” But the significance goes beyond that; especially in a world more intent on hearing politics than quality music.