The first time Noel Mitchell played Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68 with the New Haven Chamber Orchestra, he says, the sheer emotion of the piece took over him. It’s not hard to hear why: The climactic beginning of the first movement, a sandstorm of strings with a persistent, throbbing drumbeat, gives way to an easy, pastoral ebb just 90 seconds in. Everything stills to a hush for a little while. The horns do a wild fake out, only to come back in the third movement with a vengeance. And Brahms, as is his custom even from the grave, just keeps barreling forward to the end, which blows out the walls with a final three minutes of building tension and release.
Until recently, the young violinist and Wilbur Cross sophmore had only had chances to listen to the work in full, and mentally go through the steps he would take to play it. While he had been introduced to Brahms through his training at Music Haven, first as a student and then as a high school fellow, he found that the organization’s orchestra, Harmony in Action, lacked the correct instruments to pull of a work of that scale. Then, earlier this year after one of his recitals, Jessica Sack, president of the NHCO’s Board of Directors and a violinist with the group, approached him about joining the New Haven Chamber Orchestra (NHCO) and getting the chance to practice larger ensemble pieces in a setting that was all about personal — and musical — growth at all ages.
Mitchell was sold. He joined the group earlier this year. He made his formal NHCO debut in the organization’s 2015 winter concert last week, which took place at Fair Haven School.
He rocked not only the Brahms symphony, but the composer’s mellower, paced Variations on a Theme by Haydn (1873) and Opus 26 — the last of seven related works — of Jean Sibeleus’ overwhelmingly powerful, fin de siècle masterpiece Finlandia.
For Mitchell, who has played with other orchestras during his young and burgeoning classical career in Connecticut, it’s precisely the community-minded core of the group that made his first experience with it so special.
“I have played in orchestras outside of Music Haven that have had the full set of instruments,” he said. “But I think the difference between the outside orchestras I played with and NHCO is the community aspect ... it’s much like playing with old friends rather than just other musicians.”
That enthusiasm was on full display during the concert, where he and 38 other members of the all-volunteer ensemble valiantly tackled Brahms and then Sibelius, rearranging the program (arguably for the better) for a musician who had hit a delay on his way there and was running late.
“As an intergenerational group, it’s exciting to have these high school students,” said Sack after the concert. “It offers opportunities for mentorship. As a community group we’re open to all players, and it’s exciting that teens in the area are joining us.”
That trend started three years ago, when then-high-school freshman Sarah O’Brien, already part of the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestra, joined the group for its spring concert. This spring, she graduates from high school, and will continue playing her violin in college. When she credits the group for some of her growth as a musician — a sentiment she conveyed at this show, as she has at previous ones as well — Mitchell is quick to echo her.
“We played some really fun, but tough, orchestra pieces,” he said a few days after the performance. “I will definitely be joining them in the springtime!”