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MIT Symphony Orchestra
Dec. 10, 8:30 p.m.
By Thomas Chen
Two 20th-century Russian composers were featured in the MIT Symphony Orchestra's concert on Saturday night at Kresge Auditorium. Under the direction of conductor David Epstein, they played Serge Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 (1917-21) and Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 42 (1937).
The soloist in the Prokofiev concerto was Harvard sophomore Sophia Chen. Although Chen played fabulously, the orchestra could not approach her stunning virtuosity and encountered several moments of insecurity and inadequacy. Luckily, the MIT players did recuperate enough to provide an exciting (if not slightly approximated) account of the Shostakovich symphony.
Similar to Mozart and Beethoven, Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a "pianist-composer"; that is, he made a substantial career as a piano virtuoso and also wrote music in many different genres. The third concerto was intended for an American tour in 1921 which also included the premiere of his most popular opera, The Love for Three Oranges. Of his five piano concertos, only the third has a "typical" three-movement structure.
As was the case with many other 20th-century Russian composers, Prokofiev often had to contend with the Soviet government over many aspects of artistic ideals. His music is often characterized as "motoric," percussive, sarcastic, and - at times - harsh. Indeed, the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz rarely included Prokofiev's as part of his repertoire because he believed a piano "should not be treated that way." However, as anyone who has heard his second violin concerto can attest, Prokofiev was also capable of intense, tuneful lyricism. Considering the political restraints placed upon him, Prokofiev composed a variety of original works which reflect both his wide-ranging musical aesthetic and his satirical humor.
Both lyricism and percussiveness are featured in the third piano concerto; the lyricism is evident right at the outset with the beautiful clarinet duet that opens the piece. Overall, the orchestra was satisfactory with the broad, melodic passages. An occasional disagreement in slides from the string players was obvious at certain points, but on the whole, the players seemed more comfortable in these slower parts, especially the exquisite-sounding wind ensemble.
Not surprisingly, trouble appeared early in the violins during some of the fast motoric runs that are counterposed against the piano's bravura passages. The whiny violins suffered extreme slips in intonation and coherence while approaching the restatement of the original clarinet melody in the middle of the first movement. In fact, Prokofiev suddenly sounded like Charles Ives when the rear violins began playing independently of the front violins. Their problems were further exacerbated when individual members bowed in the wrong direction. Not only does this make the phrasing indeterminate, but also it a very odd sight to behold.
Despite stutter-stepping from the orchestra, Chen exhibited acute musical professionalism - occasionally accommodating the orchestra - and still managed to showcase her technique and keen musical insight. As Prokofiev had written the concerto for himself, the demands placed on the soloist are a sensitive ear for clarity and a no-nonsense feel for rhythmic vitality.
With plenty of hand-over-hand runs and two-fisted discourses with the orchestra, Chen astounded the audience with her spectacular pianism. Her delivery of the richly harmonized first variation of the second movement was absolutely ravishing to hear. Furthermore, she showed that she is an excellent chamber musician too, readjusting several times for a seemingly confused orchestra (e.g., mistimed cymbal crash at the beginning of the second variation). She also seemed to recalibrate during the last bars of the finale where the orchestra began to splay seriously.
Although Maestro Epstein rarely turned to look at his young soloist, Chen graciously took her cues from the conductor. She combined technique and musicianship, weaving them into a thoughtful performance which the audience gratefully acknowledged afterwards.
Although an accomplished pianist himself, Shostakovich could probably be characterized as more of a "composer-pianist." Probably more than Prokofiev, Shostakovich (1906-1975) was the "tortured soul" of 20th-century Russian music. Much of his personal anguish is heard in his 15 string quartets. Moreover, history records his devastation when Stalin attacked his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (which, indeed, has scenes that remind one of a Madonna music video).
The Fifth Symphony, entitled "A Soviet Artist's Reply to Just Criticism," represented Shostakovich's capitulation to his government's demands. Although Shostakovich ultimately later treated these demands more sarcastically (e.g., Ninth Symphony), the Fifth Symphony has remained a popular work despite the external circumstances influencing its composition.
Typical of Shostakovich, the Symphony No. 5 contains many passages of stark textures and jagged melodies, where the strings are sometimes asked to reach into the highest registers. Although the lean textures left the MIT violins and violas heavily exposed, they seemed to have more difficulty with the irregular rhythms here than with intonation in general.
Despite a rough start, the whole orchestra was able to pull together for the marvelous third movement, excellently shaped with great intensity. The third movement was such the highlight of the evening that even the most scrupulous members of the audience were probably willing to forgive less than perfect playing.
Unquestionably the most exciting sounds came from the brass section which played fantastically, most notably the trumpets. Their evenness of tone was a joy to listen to, and the extroverted, march-like sections were thrilling to hear for the sheer volume. The last section of the final movement seemed intentionally appended specifically for the brass players.
Maybe Shostakovich felt that a loud, emphatic ending would please the government officials, but at the least, the blaring finale - replete with the timpani, bass drum, and horns - provided a good "bang" to let the audience know when to clap. Helped by the excellent choice of tempos, the audience was glad to oblige.
Aside from the fine performance by Sophia Chen, the MIT Symphony Orchestra delivered a moderately acceptable performance of the Shostakovich. Their account of the Shostakovich symphony was far superior to their rough-house accompanying in the Prokofiev concerto.
The orchestra was definitely much more sympathetic in the previous concerts - for example, the Walton Viola Concerto and the Verdi Requiem. Rumor has it that they will be performing again with the MIT Concert Choir next semester, and it will be interesting to hear if accompanying a chorus readily improves the orchestra's sound as it did last semester.