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Ellen Harris shines with MIT symphony


Conducted by David Epstein.

Ellen Harris, soprano.

Program of works by Beethoven,

Berlioz, and Saint-Sa"ens.

Kresge Auditorium, December 9.


DAVID EPSTEIN DREW accomplished performances from the MIT Symphony Orchestra in a program of demanding works given last Saturday night in Kresge Auditorium. Most successful was Berlioz' Les Nuits d''et'e, with MIT's new associate provost for the arts, Ellen Harris, as soprano soloist.

Harris does not have a quality of tone one would call beautiful: it lacks smooth edges, and can sound on the thin side and insubstantial at times. Her voice is, nonetheless, deeply expressive and her singing of Berlioz' cycle of songs about a love doomed to failure was moving. "Villanelle," the first song, was done characterfully, if with a bit too much vibrato; Harris especially relished the upbeat and energetic last two lines of each verse.

In "Le spectre de la rose" Harris' strength of coloration came through, each strain of meaning shaped and ornamented for maximum piquancy. Some of the more difficult passages in "Au cimeti`ere: Clair de lune" caused moments of hesitancy, but her plaintive evocation of pain was poignant.

The final song, "L'^Ile inconnue" crystallizes the emotional ups and downs of the cycle as a whole, and Harris hit the peaks and troughs from the jolly opening to the sad -- but somehow uplifting -- conclusion of the song.

The orchestral accompaniment was of remarkable sensitivity, winds evoking delicate as well as pungent colors, strings supple and emotive too. There were times when the soloist was ahead of the orchestra; some of Epstein's tempos seemed a trifle slow. But that hardly detracted from the excellence of the performance as a whole.

The concert had begun with Beethoven's Overture to Prometheus, played vibrantly and richly. Saint-Sa"ens' Symphony No. 3, "Organ" brought the evening to a climactic close. The strings created some quite unusual textures, sounding mystic during parts of the first movement, the organ blending in naturally. Although there were a few tough passages where everything was not quite together, tensions built up in the second movement and organist Elaine Baum and the orchestra came together to majestic effect.