By Sam Draddy

John Morris Russell conducts the NOI Philharmonic’s performance of “Cinematic Soundscapes” on May 28.
Courtesy of David Andrews

The National Orchestral Institute + Festival (NOI+F) returned to The Clarice Center Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland (UMD) on May 28 with their “Cinematic Soundscapes.” Conductor John Morris Russell led the ensemble through nine different musical arrangements, including pieces from films such as “Lincoln,” “West Side Story,” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” 

As the crowd settled into their seats, the orchestra warmed up on stage, filling the Dekelboum Concert Hall with music before the show even began, instantly grabbing the audience’s attention. Russell began each piece with an in-depth analysis of the stories behind the music and the emotions those stories intended to instill in listeners.  

The first half of the program celebrated the music’s golden age in Hollywood films, and the second half was devoted to the music of Hollywood today. The longest performance of the night was a piece titled “Symphonic Dances,” written by Leonard Bernstein, from the film “West Side Story.” The orchestra captivated the audience during this nearly 30-minute, musically exuberant portion of the show. The crowd favorites seemed to be “Hedwig’s Theme” and “Harry’s Wondrous World,” both written by John Williams, from the film “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Some spectators were audibly excited when pianist Ying-Shan Su, an alumnus of the University of Maryland School of Music, played the famous opening notes of “Hedwig’s Theme.” Watching members of the orchestra play throughout the evening was a spectacle in itself. 

The university’s NOI+F brings together aspiring orchestral musicians from across the country for a month of dynamic music-making and professional exploration, as described on The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s website. In addition to offering musical performances, the NOI+F gives the public a chance to observe open rehearsals and masterclasses, and also attend film screenings. Russell described the festival as an extraordinary celebration of great music-making and beauty in our society, confirming that we always need more of both. 

Richard Scerbo, the director of the NOI+F, noted that these are some of the best orchestral performances you can hear in the Washington D.C. area. Many of the orchestra members are students playing these pieces for the first time, which brings an energy and excitement to the performance that is different from other concerts. During each year’s festival, the NOI+F releases an album; the 2019 album, which was recorded under Scerbo’s leadership, was nominated for a Grammy Award.  As Scerbo noted, “Here is a student orchestra nominated for a Grammy against the Boston Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, and other major orchestras. It was really quite thrilling.” 

The NOI+F will feature performances throughout the month of June. The festival ends on June 25. The schedule and details on how to attend can be found at theclarice.umd.edu