A light, repeating flute tune is heard as the string sections slowly build to a crescendo in the background. Two people walk onto the stage from both sides and hit a switch, turning on fans that blow onto a set of wind chimes. After a brief burst from the flutes, the ensemble quickly fades out and gives way to the chimes. This was how the world premiere of Heights, a composition by Daniel R. Sabzghabaei grad, began on Sunday as the opener of the Cornell Symphony Orchestra’s performance on April 24 in Bailey Hall.
It was the CSO’s final performance of its first year performing in-person concerts since the pandemic began, and the Cornell Chamber Orchestra, CSO’s smaller counterpart, has their final concert this Sunday.
The CSO and CCO, together comprising the Cornell Orchestras program, are two of the University’s numerous organizations for musicians to practice and perform throughout the academic year. Whereas the CCO focuses on stringed instruments, the CSO also includes the rest of the traditional ensemble, such as piano, flute and brass instruments.
Before the show began, Sabzghabaei spoke briefly about the inspiration and thought process behind his piece.
“The work is called Ertefā-āt, which is an Arabic word that we use in Farsi, or Persian, and it means ‘heights,’ and it’s a work that’s influenced by the Zagros mountains in Iran,” Sabzghabaei said. “These mountains have a salt mound area, where there’s… all kinds of colors that are sculpted by wind and rain and time.”
Gillis Lowry ’24, a violist for the CCO, was in attendance at the concert.
“I thought especially the first piece was really cool, and it was cool to have the composer there to tell us about it, talking about how he used a lot of ‘high’ and ‘thin’ melodies to evoke the sense of the heights,” Lowry said.
Lowry especially appreciated the creative use of fans to set off the wind chimes and give the piece an atmospheric and ambient feel.
Lowry also commented on the significant difference from the 2020-21 school year — when he was part of the CSO instead — when the ensemble had to abide by the campus’s COVID-19 protocols.
“I remember the woodwinds had to sit all the way in the chairs of Bailey, in order to prevent their air from coming towards us,” Lowry said.
Sarah Gates ’25, also a violist for the CCO, shared this sentiment. “I think it was just really cool to finally be back to doing in-person music again, because even just coming from high school, everything was on Zoom, and so nothing really felt like a real performance.”
According to Gates, Director Michelle di Russo tries to bring in different types of music from around the world to add a wide range of composers to the orchestra’s repertoire.
Kay McIlhenny ’25, a violinist for the CCO, agreed, saying, “I think we’ve had a really nice mix of repertoire throughout the year, and it just made out to be a really diverse musical experience.”
McIlhenny said her favorite part of Sunday’s concert was a solo concerto by violinist Nanor Seraydarian ’24 in Chausson’s Poème, since it is uncommon to hear a violin concerto at school.
At the end of March, the CCO put on an opera show comprised of three 18th-century pieces woven together by Cornell music Prof. Rebecca Harris-Warwick, produced in collaboration with the New York State Baroque Dance Company.
“That was really fun to be able to work with other artists and musicians outside of just orchestra, and for a pretty crowded stadium audience, that felt special,” Gates said.
As a physics major, Gates described how being part of the orchestra facilitates connections in a number of ways.
“It’s really cliche but I do like the community, because there’s oddly enough a lot of STEM students in the orchestra, so it’s really cool to be able to have a sort of support system for academic stressors as well as be around a bunch of people who really like music,” Gates said.
As a biology major, McIlhenny echoed this remark.
“I think what I enjoy the most, is I just like being part of the music-making, especially when academics gets rigorous and difficult, I have something that I like to fall back on which is really nice, and though it is a time commitment,” McIlhenny said.
McIlhenny also serves as the CCO’s assistant concertmaster alongside Seraydarian, the primary concertmaster. They help in coordinating the different sections of the ensemble so that everyone blends together nicely, according to Seraydarian.
For Seraydarian, the opportunities to perform with Cornell Orchestras have represented the continuation of her noteworthy musical career.
“I basically started playing violin at the age of four, both my parents are musicians, as well as my siblings but they’re much younger… so my parents thought it would be a good idea to get me started as well, so that’s how I started,” Seraydarian said.
Being born and raised in Syria until age 11 when turmoil caused her family to come to the United States, one of the few items Seraydarian brought was her violin, so the instrument has a special place in her heart.
This upcoming Sunday, May 1 at 3 p.m., the CCO’s final concert will feature a collection of Argentinian tango pieces with a visiting bandonéon — an instrument related to the accordion, popular in Argentina and Uruguay — soloist J.P. Jofre, including one piece by him, titled Tangodromo.
The concert will also include the world premiere of a piece specifically dedicated to the CCO, inspired by the reflecting pools on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
“It’s got a lot of time signature changes and some funky rhythms, and I’m a big fan of soaring melodies as well,” Lowry said. “It has a little bit of everything I think, so I’m really looking forward to playing that.”