Classical Swifties’ “Wildest Dreams”: A night of orchestral excellence

Jan. 29, 2023, 11:41 p.m.

The lights cut out; scattered candles illuminate the stage. String instrumentalists begin playing a gentle harmony, building to the soaring melodies of Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams.” At the end of the song, applause roars and an audience member remarks, “I like, teared up.” Was this a “Bridgerton” ball? A preview of an orchestral number from Swift’s upcoming tour? No — it was Toyon Hall welcoming the latest themed concert from Stanford Collaborative Orchestra (SCOr).

SCOr’s “Taylor Swift by Candlelight” event this Friday was a carefully and lovingly crafted tribute to the pop star. SCOr’s string quartet, with musicians Jen Soh ’23 (violin), Zach Benton ’25 (violin), Elena Critelli ’25 (viola) and Tae Kyu Kim ’25 (cello), performed a variety of songs from Taylor Swift’s discography from across five of her albums.

The classy string quartet seemed right at home in the castle-like setting of Toyon Hall; the on-stage candles and performers’ elegant concert dress set the tone for a refined but joyous celebration of Taylor Swift’s music. By the end of the night, an audience sing-along number of “You Belong With Me” got a standing ovation from the packed hall. 

The string quartet crafted a formidable setlist of Taylor Swift’s biggest hits, from 2010s classics like “Love Story” to pop legends like “Blank Space,” as well as more recent releases like “Cardigan.” The most conspicuous omissions included fan-favorite “All Too Well” and her trendy hits from the “Reputation” or “Midnights” albums. Still, it was impressive how well the variety of song styles translated to a string quartet format. The arrangements deployed the whole spectrum of string sounds to render Swift’s soundscapes, using plucked arpeggios, gently halting tremolo notes and rhythmic bass lines to create all the elements of a Swift song.

The quartet’s performance of “Lover,” for example, gave the romantic waltz more melody and suspenseful movement than even Swift’s original version. Soh’s sweeping and gliding notes on the chorus made the song’s sentimental tone more weighty and lovelorn in an incredibly satisfying way. The clear favorite of the night, though, was “Love Story,” with great plucking of the song’s iconic arpeggios and a driving momentum to the song’s triumphant chorus. The end of the song elicited huge cheers.

The care put into the event was obvious from the beginning. Audience members were handed a program at the door and greeted by the sound of some of Swift’s fan favorites. The program pamphlet was designed with icons of various images associated with Swift’s songs scattered throughout. While waiting for the concert, attendees could pass time connecting these icons with their associated songs and checking them against the provided answer key. The easter egg hunt had a good mix of easier trivia (the scarf, for “All Too Well”) and more difficult challenges (the football helmet, for “Stay, Stay, Stay”). 

Emcee Vardaan Shah ’25 cracked a number of Swift-related jokes between pieces, getting the audience laughing. Shah gave a comedic Shakespeare impression introducing “Love Story” that was a hit with the crowd. A Swift trivia transition had the audience murmuring to their neighbors, quietly debating the answer to the multiple choice question. As the concert closed, fans yelled “encore!” clearly wanting more music and fun. Afterward, many audience members stuck around to grab the complimentary snacks. 

The event’s specificity and thoughtfulness was a clear consequence of the Stanford Collaborative Orchestra’s philosophy: “an orchestra of the people, by the people, and for the people.” SCOr is Stanford’s first conductorless student-run symphonic ensemble, and their collaborative leadership was on full display. Violinists Soh and Benton were frequently seen nodding and smiling at each other at points throughout each song. The organization’s student-led mission lends itself perfectly to events catered for student enjoyment and where the performers and organizers are passionate about the music.

SCOr’s choice to devote a whole evening to Swift’s discography provided an experiment testing the pop artist’s songwriting caliber. The performance especially attested to the strength of the songs’ bridges and choruses, making audience members bop their heads and dance in their seats. Even without the superstar’s signature lyrics, the instrumental performance made it clear that Taylor Swift can write a damn good melody. 

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Isabella Saracco '23 is a staff writer and columnist for The Stanford Daily. She loves Chicago, deep-dish pizza and cats.

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