The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 45.0°F | Overcast

Standards best for MIT symphony; H & H Society mediocre

MIT SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Conducted by David Epstein.

Paulina Stark and Jill Wilson, soloists.

Works by David Epstein, Edward Cohen,

Beethoven and Ravel.

Kresge Auditorium, Saturday, March 11.

HANDEL & HAYDN SOCIETY

Conducted by Jeffrey Rink,

Jeffrey Kahane, piano soloist.

Program of works by

Sibelius, Beethoven,

Copland and Mendelssohn.

Symphony Hall, March 10 & 12.

By JONATHAN RICHMOND

IT WAS A CONCERT where the tried and tested came out the best. MIT Symphony Orchestra conductor David Epstein led the orchestra in some of their most disciplined, but also most expressive playing in the two outer works on the program, Beethoven's Egmont Overture and Ravel's La Valse. But neither of the two contemporary works which filled this sandwich provided much satisfaction.

Epstein is a composer as well as a conductor, and for the first of their modern works, the orchestra performed Epstein's Four Songs: A Cycle for Soprano, Solo French Horn and String Orchestra. The third song, set to words by Gerard Manley Hopkins -- as are the first two -- was the only one which was successful on a musical level. It was only in this song that the words were illuminated with subtlety. Paulina Stark provided some beautifully lyrical singing here, and the horn part was skillfully scored to mesh with and support her voice. The Symphony strings played with sensitivity, setting the mood dramatically, and providing evocative textures of wistfulness.

The first two songs, in contrast, came off blandly. Epstein's music seemed disconnected from the texts, and there seemed to be little rapport between solo parts or between the orchestra and the soloists. The vocal part seemed incapable of coloring the words, while interventions on the part of the horn were rather on the obvious side.

After an interlude for French Horn and Orchestra which seemed wholly out of place, the final song -- "Ode to Sleep" -- was performed. The music here was atmospheric but failed to reflect the profound inner world of Keats' poetry.

Stone and Earth by Edward Cohen had little more to offer. There was some interesting dark music written for the cellos, but the composition as a whole had few ideas to offer and quickly became monotonous, despite Paulina Stark's worthy attempts to make of it as much as possible.

The Egmont Overture, on the other hand, was where the orchestra really shone. Epstein has worked miracles in developing a strong sense of ensemble among his players, and nowhere has this been better shown than in the crisp, sharply-balanced playing he elicited from them here.

The opening struck home bold and clear, and Epstein built up an almost demonic drive from there on in. Phenomenal tensions were developed among the strings, and this was more than just well-organized playing: it was a performance with insight. Tempi were carefully judged to bring out the grandeur of the piece, and built towards producing a conclusion of extraordinary climactic intensity. This was a performance fit for Symphony Hall.

To end the concert, Ravel's La Valse was given a dramatic reading. Most surprisingly, the strings played with the right gestures to make them sound truly Viennese, something rarely achieved outside of Vienna. Each turn of phrase brought new pleasure; the whole had an inspired sense of lightness and was done with much wit, too.

Contemporary works should be performed by the MIT Symphony Orchestra, and it is right to mix them with the better known compositions of the past. More care is needed, however, in selecting work which can engage the imagination of the audience, and attract it to trying out more modern music in the future.

THE HANDEL & HAYDN SOCIETY provided another mostly mediocre concert last Friday night, but at least it ended well. Assistant Conductor Jeffrey Rink concluded the evening by leading H & H in a warm and well-balanced performance of Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 in A, "Italian." The orchestra played with a radiant gentleness and sweet lyricism. Each woodwind voice showed an individual identity, but meshed wonderfully into the the ensemble as a whole.

Some of the crescendi were weak, but that didn't seem to matter given the special intimate ambience H & H provided.

The rest of the concert had been a less happy experience. The Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1 with Jeffrey Kahane as soloist had been given only a bland treatment. Despite an impressing showing during the cadenza, and sensitive and thoughtful playing in the slow movement, Kahane seemed strained in the two outer movements, and his sound often came out muddily. Especially in the Rondo; Allegro, Kahane seemed wont to glide past notes hurriedly, without attending to their individual articulation, and at the brisk tempi at which Rink was taking the orchestra, this was perhaps not surprising.

As to the band, the strings sounded on the thin side and, despite some delightful woodwind textures emerging from time to time, orchestral sound lacked either clarity or elegance.

Kahane was playing a modern piano in an early Beethoven work where a strong case can be made for using a period instrument. Although the orchestra was also using modern instruments, the scaling seemed wrong, and there never seemed to be any meaningful rapport between ensemble and soloist.

Perversely, next season Melvyn Tan (why is Christopher Hogwood not inviting the infinitely more talented Steven Lubin?) will perform the "Emperor" concerto -- the final of the piano concertos, and the one where the power of a modern piano can arguably make most sense -- on a period instrument. Actually, it's possible to play both concertos well on both types of instruments, but this doesn't account for why H & H tried to feebly mimic what the modern-instrument BSO and concert-grand-playing-soloist can do better any night.

There were two other works on the program: Incidental Music to Kuolema by Sibelius and Quiet City by Copland. Both these performances were dull.