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Modern works challenge audience and musicians

MIT Concert Band

Kresge Auditorium.

March 11.

By Jonathan Yates

The word "band" conjures up an image of mediocre musicians playing marches and other simplistic music not worthy of serious musical consideration. The Concert Band's performance on March 11, however, makes a fine exception to this stereotype. The band performed an exciting collection of intellectually and musically challenging contemporary works for wind ensemble. Indeed, the selections did not include a single piece of music that might be regarded as simplistic.

All but one of the composers was present at the performance, and two of them conducted their own pieces. This concert was also notable for featuring talented students in key roles, a service that few college music groups are so willing to pay to the members of their own musical communities.

The program opened with Canto III, a piece by Professor John Bavicchi '44, a faculty member at the Berklee College of Music and long time associate of the Concert Band. The work was interesting, but difficult to follow on a first listening. Like so many works of contemporary music, it included occasional passages which were written and orchestrated in an obviously non-intuitive way. Such challenging and non-idiomatic writing was responsible for several moments of bad intonation from the band during its performance of Canto III.

The Concert Band then performed Prelude for Euphonium and Band, a two-movement piece by Professor Jack Jarret, another local area composer from the Berklee College of Music. Jarret conducted this performance himself. While his baton technique was often stiff, he held the band firmly in control. The players seemed to play for him with a level of care and discipline unequaled elsewhere on the program. Both movements were light, tonal, and more than any other piece on the program, immediately enjoyable.

The euphonium solo was played quite well by Wayne Baumgartner '96. The piece features very lyrical writing for the euphonium in a range far higher than that which is standard for the instrument. Baumgartner handled the challenge of this uncharacteristically high passage work easily, and made the euphonium, often a cumbersome instrument, sound melodic and graceful in its highest register. Even so, he sometimes seemed unable to overcome these technical challenges to play the solo part with the warmth, expression, and attention to phrasing it demanded.

The final piece before intermission was the Symphony for Wind Instruments, a 30-minute-long work in its Boston premiere. The composer, Paul Dickinson, currently a graduate student at Northwestern University, wrote this wonderful and expansive symphony at the age of 19.

Alan Pierson '96 conducted the performance in the Bernstein tradition, and was as much a visual delight to the audience as a leader to the performers. His passionate physical expression drew out the many contrasting feelings of the piece, and he communicated to both the audience and the performers the full gambit of emotions present in this excellent work.

Even where the band struggled with the technical demands of this challenging and massive piece, particularly in the third movement's double fugue, Pierson's panache captured the spirit of the work: haunting and melancholy at one moment, boisterous and light by the next.

The Band performed exceedingly well in the thrilling and furious second movement, which featured some excellent performances from the percussion section, and Pierson managed to keep the excitement and energy climbing until the last note. I felt that his performance of the Symphony was the finest moment of the program; judging from the audience's response, I was not alone in this assessment.

The second half of the concert opened with the Mass, a textless five-movement setting of the full Mass Ordinary by Adrian Childs '94. The composition was a fascinating combination of ideas gleaned from the composer's study of the Medieval Mass, and his use of compositional techniques of 20th century music.

In this sophisticated work, Childs achieved a variety of effective textures, especially the contrast between passages which featured several solo players and sections for the entire ensemble. Childs ingeniously found ways to subtly weave the opening "Kyrie" theme throughout all five movements. Although some of the solo players lacked polish, the band performed well here under the composer's baton.

For a finale, the Band performed "Three Sussex Sketches," by Jeffrey Bishop. This piece was the least intelligently composed of the works on the program. The orchestration often seemed ineffective and hashed together. As in the first piece, the band was unable to effectively handle some of the most difficult writing. However, with its use of familiar tunes and special effects involving off-stage players and unusual instruments' sounds, it served as a rousing finish to a truly excellent concert.

This performance demonstrates the wealth of musical talent present at MIT, and it is to the credit of Director John Corley that he has chosen to provide an atmosphere where this talent can flourish.