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Prieto plays pure sadness, without false tears

MIT SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

David Epstein, conductor.

Carlos Prieto '58, cello soloist.

Works by Ives, Elgar, and Schumann.

Kresge Auditorium, Nov. 3, 8:30 pm.

By DEBORAH A. LEVINSON

EVERY NOW AND THEN, MIT produces an outstanding musician. Of late, there have been several shining stars -- baritone Kenneth Goodson '89, pianists Jee-Lian and Jee-Hoon Yap '90 -- but it is rare for MIT to produce a musician who is truly world-class. Cellist Carlos Prieto '58, who earned degrees in economics and materials science and engineering, is one of those musicians.

Prieto abandoned his job as president of a major steel company to return to his first love, the cello. A native of Mexico, Prieto is recognized as the preeminent cellist of that country and spends his time promoting the works of Mexican composers.

Last Saturday, however, Prieto performed not the work of a Mexican composer, but that of a British one -- Elgar's Cello Concerto. This was the highlight of the symphony's program.

Prieto's opening chords were powerful and emotive, his vibrato giving the chords a raw-nerve depression. There was pure sadness in his playing: no pathos, no false tears, just genuine sadness.

The symphony rose to the challenge of this piece. Every change in dynamics was smooth and fluid, every string of notes polished and precise. Conductor David Epstein should take much of the credit for his superb guidance of the orchestra through a piece that depends more on emotional tone than technical finesse.

The third movement of the concerto showed a major shift in focus. The cello's double stops and the syncopation in both cello and violin lines gave this section a little more substance and motion. Certainly, Epstein could have darkened it, making the horn tones more legato, making the strings more plaintive, but to do so would have resulted in a melancholy muddle. Instead, he resisted, letting Prieto's expressive cello set the pace, and the orchestra delivered with equal panache.

The evening's program opened with Ives' Washington's Birthday, one of four movements of a symphony celebrating American national holidays. The opening of the piece was haunting, ghostly, evocative of morning mists -- ideally, it should have been performed on Halloween to take advantage of both this and the violins' spooky, spidery lines.

Essentially, the piece consists of disjointed bits of music loosely woven together: snatches of "Swanee River," "Camptown Races," and "Turkey in the Straw" adorn the melody. All are played, as Epstein put it, "together, [but] out-of-phase, out-of-synchrony."

This technique can lead to something innovative and exciting, but it can also provide the perfect opportunity for the orchestra to fall apart completely. And while there were times at which the musicians seemed to be on totally different planes -- the brass at one tempo, the strings at another, conflicting tempo -- overall, their rendition of the Ives was cohesive and balanced. The multiple tempi complemented the festival atmosphere of the piece's second section, the "quadrille," and indeed, the orchestra seemed to be enjoying the rollicking music, cleverly-placed dissonances, and often-surprising changes in tempo.

The final selection of the evening was Schumann's Symphony No. 4. Normally, I don't like Schumann -- I find him too rigid, too repetitive, and frankly, too boring -- but the orchestra's performance of this piece was at least good enough to hold my attention. The pyramid-layering of the brass harmonies was lovely, and the violin lines strident, leaving me satisfied that the symphony had done a credible job with what was otherwise a wholly uninspiring piece.