Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra makes Meyerhoff debut

Nearly 80 years following Rachmaninoff’s triumphant debut of “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” in Baltimore, Rice University’s Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra traveled to the Charm City to offer their take on the Russian composer’s masterpiece and two other works in their debut performance at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

The orchestra took the stage promptly at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15., and Larry Rachleff, professor of music and director of orchestras, started the concert by leading the students in an electrifying rendition of Berlioz’s “Le Corsaire Overture.”

Internationally celebrated pianist and Shepherd School Professor of Piano Jon Kimura Parker took the stage next as the featured soloist in “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” which had featured Rachmaninoff himself as soloist in its Nov. 7, 1934 Baltimore debut. The work, one of the composer’s most famous, includes a set of 24 carefully structured variations based on a theme by Niccolò Paganini, a 19th century virtuoso violinist.

Parker noted that the 18th variation of the piece is not only famous, but has a very “romantic nature,” which made it very appropriate to be performed on Valentine’s Day weekend.

“It’s one of the most beautiful melodies ever written,” he said. “I think it was wonderfully appropriate for the occasion.”

Following a brief intermission, the orchestra returned to the stage to conclude their Baltimore debut with Béla Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” Parker noted that the dramatic five-movement musical work is “one of the few symphonies custom-designed to showcase everyone.”

“You can play an entire symphony as a member of a section and be part of the musical texture, but in the Bartók piece everyone is actually featured,” Parker said. “It’s fantastic.”

The concert concluded with a standing ovation and wild applause for the orchestra. As Parker and Rachleff beamed and bowed onstage, the student musicians embraced each other.

“Everybody really stepped it up a notch tonight and brought this level of intensity that we really haven’t heard yet,” said Zach Gauvain, a graduate student studying clarinet performance. “It’s great to be here in Baltimore and playing for an audience outside of Texas.”

Terri and Tom Klein traveled from Philadelphia to hear their daughter perform as part of the orchestra.

“It was very much a treat to have them travel here and to have our family and friends here to enjoy the performance,” Terri said. “And it was really a pleasure to experience the fruits of their hard work.”

Tom added, “They were wonderful. They should definitely travel here more often.”

Sanjula Jain, an alumna who moved to D.C. following her graduation from Rice in 2013, said, “It’s really amazing to see everyone from the area come together. And the music was excellent. I’ve always been a fan of the Shepherd School and all their performances, and it was nice to be reminded of their level of greatness.”

Former Shepherd School Dean Anne Schnoebelen called the orchestra’s Meyerhoff debut “amazing.”

“There were moments of great joy and pride of course, and kind of a feeling of culmination,” she said. “After all the years of hard work on behalf of the school, being able to do something like this was wonderful.”

For more coverage of the orchestra’s East Coast tour, visit

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.