April 17, 2006

Wolfish Last Cleese Show

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On Saturday afternoon, there was a commotion on the Commons. A seemingly endless line of people stretched all the way down the block, from the front of the State Theatre, all the way down State Street and around the corner. It was a diverse crowd – people of all ages had come to bid a fond farewell to John Cleese, A.D. White Professor-at-Large, and, of course, to enjoy some good music.

On stage, unassuming black chairs began to fill with musicians and their gleaming wooden instruments. The theater filled steadily until it was full to the brim and the voices of audience members spilled over to mingle with the faint sounds of violin strings being tested and tuned. When darkness fell on the theater silence soon followed, and the performance of the Cornell Chamber Orchestra began.

It was clear from the start this show was not to be like any other. At a classical orchestra concert, it’s not usually expected to have one’s feet tapping and head bobbing to the beat one moment and in the next having one’s eyes closed to the smooth carries of a rising and falling classical harmony. Yet, this was precisely what occurred during the opening performance of Pop song for String Bass and String Orchestra by the Cornell Chamber orchestra and Prof. Nicholas Walker, music performance, Ithaca College. Walker, on the base, towards the end of the piece played what was described by the program as “a free improvisation with a conductor-less orchestra … with a heartbeat and radio fade-out.” It was a surprising and delightful piece, as young student and elder patron alike recognized the influence of songs like John Lennon’s Imagine, The Beatles’ Yesterday; Here There, and Everywhere, Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees, and singers like Shirley Horn, Frank Sinatra and Pattie LaBelle. After a foot-stomping raucous bit of applause, voices rose again in excited conversation during a short intermission.

When the music started again, a tall distinguished-looking gentleman did also, making his way to the stage. He was John Cleese, A.D. White Professor-at-Large. After shaking the hand of experienced conductor Prof. Chris Kim, music, and director of orchestras, Cleese began his narration. The performance was thoroughly enjoyed by the whole audience, from members of the older generation, like D.G. VanCroft who worked at the theatre as an usher when she was younger, who called the show ” absolutely wonderful,” to those of the younger generation, like Stephen Brown ’09 who called it “a beautiful collaboration.”

The performance was a success not just for those who listened, but also for those who brought it to life.

“It was successful on many different levels,” Kim said, “Being able to play to a sold out house of more than 1,600 people is a great thing for any performing organization. A lesser ensemble might have panicked at the thought of playing for such a large audience, but I was extremely proud of the way the Cornell Chamber Orchestra remained collected and musical on stage. They were really having fun.”

Yet it was not all play – the performance was also the result of a lot of hard work and dedication from a large number of people. The chamber orchestra had been practicing since late February, twice a week, for about three and a half hours. As it was, the orchestra only had one two-hour dress rehearsal on Thursday and one short 30 minute run through on the day of with Cleese. Amanda Wong ’09, a violinist in the chamber orchestra, thought all the hard work paid off. On working with Cleese she said, “He’s really funny. He talked to us about how he was not a musical person and needed us to give him cues. He came a couple times for rehearsal – he’s hilarious.”

Kim added, “Every time we went through the piece it became better than the last time. I am truly lucky to work with wonderful artists like John Cleese – a consummate artist, very easy to work worth – and Nicholas Walker, but most of all to be able to work with such multi-talented group like the members of the Cornell Chamber Orchestra.”

The talented music of the chamber orchestra, guided by the graceful gestures of Kim and the deeply resonating voice and punctuating facial expressions of Cleese kept the whole audience impressed and smiling. At the end of the show, when all on stage rose for applause, Cleese embraced Kim and then raised his arms to the musicians. To the audience it was evident that Cleese, who has made himself known by his wealth of knowledge on a variety of subjects and intellectual pursuits, has always been and always will be a performer. They expressed their gratitude and appreciation for what had been made so refreshingly and wonderfully clear – that the person who had enjoyed the performance the most of all, was Cleese himself.

Archived article by Molly O’Toole
Sun Contributor