How Did Mendelssohn Get In Here?

It wasn’t completely clear when Felix Mendelssohn entered the room.

Lifting his bow with panache, Benjamin Hoffman rose to the tips of his toes, back yielding to some unknowable force. Behind him, the New Haven Chamber Orchestra joined in spiritedly. Jonathan Brandani lifted his hands slowly.

And there the composer was, if only for a moment before Brandani moved his hand again, this time in a quick sideways motion as if to stay stop, and the orchestra broke to try the measure again.

Preparing its spring concert, The New Haven Chamber Orchestra was refining Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 8, which features Hoffman as a soloist. The concert takes place this coming Saturday; it will also feature pieces by Antonín Dvořák and Franz von Suppé.

The concert’s appeal is twofold: The orchestra is spellbinding as it fulfills its mission to “bring the wonderful realm of chamber music to the greater New Haven community and to promote the arts in New Haven at all levels” once again, and so is Hoffman.

At the NHCO’s core is the joy of music making. Culled from diverse sectors of New Haven – hospitals, classrooms, office cubicles and everything in between – members of the orchestra come together once a week not only to play, but to have fun in a setting of mutual respect and continuing education.

“We are a team. We need to hear each other,” Brandani said of the group’s rehearsal technique.

He was right: as they rehashed measure after measure, something unlikely happened: smiles abounded, laughs perforated the silence that came after the conductor had drawn back his hand to stay stop once more, and a feeling of cohesion quickly settled over the group.
Their drive and commitment to music are personified in members like violinist Sarah O’Brien, the youngest in the ensemble at 15. “I’ve definitely grown as a player,” said O’Brien, who also plays with the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestra. “I was much more timid, both personality wise and as a musician, and I’ve improved because the music is hard,” she said.

Hard, maybe, but tremendously enjoyable for all parties involved. As they returned to measures of the Violin Concerto, members grinned and nodded, uncannily happy to take on – if to perfect – the same few bars of music for the umpteenth time. 

Lucy Gellman PhotoThen there’s the soloist, who is not just the icing on the cake, but a whole layer of the cake itself. A rising doctoral student at the Yale School of Music, Hoffman is lanky and shy, and gives little to no notice of the live wires in his fingertips that snake out and spark when he plays.

But they are very much there. “Something of me comes out when I play, so at the same time I’m focusing on the music that Mendelssohn wrote, I’m also focusing on what’s going on around me. I suppose that there are parts of my imagination that go into the piece,” Hoffman said after the rehearsal.

Where he overlaps with the Orchestra isn’t just musical. “The most important thing for me is to enjoy what we’re doing together, and its very evident from the amount of smiling and laughing that goes on that the orchestra is enthused to play,” he said.

Add to his performance the NHCO’s ongoing literacy initiative, and even New Haven’s youngest members have a reason to celebrate. While this concert will not draw explicitly on children’s music, as their winter one sought to, children will walk away with a music-themed alphabet coloring book and crayons.

A final reason to go: after two glorious years with the NHCO and the Yale Philharmonia, Brandani is moving to the Midwest – if temporarily – to take over as Resident Artist Coach at MinnesotaOpera.

His advice to the ensemble as they near this fateful parting? One that extends to audiences too.

“We must enjoy every note.”

The Spring Concert begins at the Fair Haven School Auditorium, 164 Grand Ave., at 4 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free. Free parking is also available in the parking lot adjacent to the school (shared with the public library).


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