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Many standout performers bring life to an unsurprising year in MIT music, theater

By Scott Deskin

Last year's on-campus performances were, on the whole, not that surprising: There's only so much originality that a performance group can inject into a Gilbert & Sullivan opera or a formula a capella show. However, there were more than enough individuals who stood out from the crowd to make these shows enjoyable and memorable. The jazz and classical music ensembles were especially noteworthy, and they continued an exploration of musical range and expression.

Theater

The Musical Theater Guild's Independent Activities Period production of Maltby and Shire's Baby was largely an unqualified success. The upbeat and endearing show depicted the lives of three couples who are forced to face some tough questions about their marriages when faced with the prospect of a new baby. The potentially serious material was displaced by an uplifting storyline and supported by a lively, comic score that is hard not to like. The real strength of this production, though, was the enthusiasm of its cast, led by an especially dazzling performance from Jessica Phillips and buoyant choreography.

Even with strong male leads, weak female acting hindered the MTG's fall production of Guys and Dolls, the classic musical about bad men and the women who love them. The bad men come out looking quite good, while the good women gave only mediocre showings. Despite a slow middle, the show picked up steam by the end of the second act, giving a semi-satisfactory catharsis to the on-again, off-again performance. The New York gangster setting, along with memorable songs (including "Luck Be a Lady"), skillful choreography, and a voice-cameo by President Charles M. Vest, prevailed in an enjoyable and marginally successful show.

Dramashop's performance of Spring's Awakening presented a tale of humanity, maturity, and redemption. A sometimes brutal and perverse cross between Catch-22 and A Separate Peace, it treated life, death, and sexual coming-of-age with both poignance and stark cynicism. It tells the story of the experiences of pubescent schoolboys in 19th century Germany and their experiences with their feelings and sexual desires toward the opposite sex and each other. Under the direction of Michael Ouelette, and highlighted by several affecting performances, the play unflinchingly exposed the fears and frustrations of adolescence.

The Shakespeare Ensemble's production of of Love's Labour's Lost, under the direction of Kermit Dunkelberg, transformed an encounter by plain-clothes actors onstage into Shakespeare at his bawdy, irreverent best, complete with modern-day references and instructive gestures to breath new life into the text.

The first major production of the year came from the Gilbert & Sullivan Players' production of The Foundling, written by Robert Weingart (conductor) and Mary A. Finn '81 (director). Although The Tech's reviewer was not very impressed by this original work, it contained some fine performances and a text that yearns to pursue the G&S tradition. The Gilbert & Sullivan Players' spring production of The Gondoliers was a confident return to form. The strong singing and orchestral accompaniment playfully underscored the plot, centered around two young gondoliers who attempt to resolve their relationships with their lovers and at the same time grapple with the prospect of one gondolier assuming the royal throne. High points of the performance included costumes and set design, which blended nicely into the Venetian setting of the play, and several modern-day revisionist references, such as a modern disco ball during the dance and banquet.

The G&S production of The Mikado was also an enjoyable (although dated and racist) parody of the Japanese culture. To be fair, the play does call itself a parody, and as such was meant to provide a humorous look at stereotypes. As such, the story of forbidden love in a land where flirting is a capital offense came through quite well because of some spirited, light-hearted performances by the cast. The play's humor relies upon the fact that true love will triumph over all obstacles, even the seemingly insurmountable decree of the Mikado of Japan. From an entertainment perspective, the musical was funny and colorful and the costumes were gorgeous.

The Shakespeare Ensemble's production of Titus Andronicus, perhaps the bloodiest of all of Shakespeare's plays, was a little over two hours of solid entertainment. There were murders, beheadings, hewn limbs, and a rape. The strength of the play, which is emphasized in Kim Mancuso's direction of this production, was not in its sensationalism, but rather in the timeless exploration of man's dual nature of brutality and familial loyalty and love, as well as a lust for political power. The quotes and poem in the program reminded the audience of the current conflict in Bosnia. The introduction served its purpose, forcing the audience to look for insights into our present world in the bloody spectacle of Titus. The set was simple but inspired, with the floor of the stage made to look like a warped chessboard, an appropriate setting for this play.

Jazz

At the New England Collegiate Jazz Festival in March, Phil Woods and the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble saved the night by injecting some life and thought into an increasingly tired atmosphere. Woods resonated throughout Kresge with a true, confident voice and brilliant technique. But, unlike the soloists of two previous groups, his playing never seemed overdone. He blew his horn with the cool confidence and articulation of a supremely experienced artist.

Even with the spotlight on Phil Woods, the MIT Jazz Ensemble supported Woods with skill and sophistication. In Woods' "Quill," Susie Ward and Josh Goldberg '96 gave impassioned saxophone solos that came from their hearts. And with "Variation on a theme by Jimi Hendrix; Manic Depression," the group managed to capture a whole palette of emotions through its instruments. As the piano played a drunken ostinato, we could picture a figure dancing in circles in some sort of hallucinatory state. Melancholy rubbed against furor and aural mania. The winds layered a hauntingly serene ambiance over a violent solo by Damon Bramble '97.

The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra will prove to anyone that it is no mere "ensemble." It is an odd instrumental mix of classical and jazz, but it all contributes to the goal of orchestral colors. That is what the Aardvark is about: these mature musicians concern themselves with sound.

Bandleader/composer Mark Harvey, a lecturer in the music and theater arts department, worked with more primal elements of music to create works of art. The two-plus hour concert in March at the Harvard-Epworth Methodist Church consisted of two suites and a short encore. "The Firewave Suite: a Meditation on the War Peril" began the evening with dark washes of color and sound, gradually moving into the regular beat and structure of more typical jazz.

The second piece on the program, "Passages/Psalms II," was a lighter piece, despite the dark modal colors that permeated most of the improvised passages. Soloists were encouraged to strike out on their own, and they did. Harvey masterfully captured the flow set up by an inspired soloist, bringing in more band members as needed or determining the next composed section to play. Listening was essential to the creation of this music, and everyone was doing it.

Brass Ensemble

In March, the brass ensemble presented a concert in which they moved an audience to both sadness and exultation. The group, directed by trombonist Larry Isaacson, is a standard ensemble with four trumpets, four horns, three trombones, one euphonium, one tuba, and three percussionists. The evening began with Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." This piece features dramatic, stark tympani and gong, alternating with a gorgeous fanfare line that is first offered by the trumpets, then by the horns and the lower brass. The ensemble was certainly up to the task, playing the piece with great emotion, excellent dynamics, and smooth phrasing.

After a nice performance of Grieg's "Funeral March," the group played an emotional "Allegretto" from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. This movement must surely rank as one of Beethoven's most beautiful melodies; indeed, Wagner termed Beethoven's Seventh as "the apotheosis of the dance." Isaacson handed the baton to euphonium player Wayne Baumgartner '96, who did a credible job conducting Arthur Bliss's "Fanfare for a Coming Age," and to trumpeter Brian Blatnik '95, who conducted "Tripartita" by Klaus Roy. Each of these pieces went very well, with each guest conductor getting a good performance from the ensemble.

The dramatic highlight of the night was the closing piece, "Fanfares Liturgiques" by Henri Frdien Tomasi. With a unifying musical theme throughout, the four sections depict the annunciation, the good news of salvation, the Apocalypse, and Christ's crucifixion and ascent into Heaven. The ensemble presented the whole piece with the emotion suggested by the subject matter, making this a powerful and moving closing statement.

Concert Band

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 in March, however, makes a fine exception to this stereotype. The band attempted an exciting collection of intellectually and musically challenging contemporary works for wind ensemble, including Canto III, a piece by Professor John Bavicchi '44, a faculty member at the Berklee College of Music. 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.

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. For a finale, the band performed "Three Sussex Sketches," by Jeffrey Bishop, for which 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.

The concert band was founded by students in 1948 and was joined soon after by Lecturer John Corley, who has been with the group ever since. All along, Corley has remained dedicated to performing works written specifically for wind band, and over the years has commissioned many pieces for the ensemble.

Playing its 45th anniversary concert in Kresge Auditorium on April 30, the band premiered its latest commission, Fantasy on the Elements by Berklee composer Silvia San Miguel, as well as a new work by Childs, Concertino for Piano, Winds, and Percussion. Although there were some fine moments, both works were encumbered by poor intonation or execution from the band.

The novelty piece on the program was William J. Maloof's Festive Music for Double Wind Orchestra and Percussion. It was written for two symphonic bands playing simultaneously; so the concert band split into two groups and streamed up each of the outside aisles in Kresge Auditorium, facing each other in two lines to play the piece. Much of this piece revolves around harmonic or rhythmic conflict between the two bands, creating complex integrated patterns, and a well-integrated performance of this piece was the evening's highlight.

Concert Choir

In April, the concert choir was joined by the MIT symphony orchestra in a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Messa da Requiem. Aside from moments of insecurity from the orchestra, the performance as a whole was musically satisfying and surely one of the most sonically dazzling to grace Kresge's somewhat dry acoustics.

As with his many BSO performances, director John Oliver drew a strong, solid sound from the chorus. Oliver's tempos were quite conventional and did not show any self-conscious signs of "going easy" on an amateur student chorus by slowing down. The chorus proved its strength, staying in tune and nicely focused. Led by the soprano, the chorus again absolved itself in another unaccompanied thirty-nine bar section at the tail end of the Libra me. For a chorus of its gargantuan proportions, the MIT concert choir achieved an impressive level of tonal homogeneity.

The instrumental portion of the performance was not quite as successful as the vocal contribution. The woodwinds have consistently delivered in their performances and were featured prominently again in the Requiem. Despite small intonation errors, their tone as an ensemble remained steady. However, the evening's most painful moment came during the Offertorio. Although Verdi wrote a single melodic line for the cellos, the audience was hammered by a virtual chorus of approximations.

The concert choir gave thoughtful performance of Franz Joseph Haydn's Die Schpfung (The Creation) in November. After being hot-pressed in the spring with Verdi's ultra dynamics and lengthy unaccompanied choral passages, The Creation must have been a welcome relief. Except for a slightly laborious "The heavens are telling," the tempos and phrasing were generally pleasing. Most impressive of the evening was deftly-executed phrasing on "Achieved is the glorious work" and "The Lord is great, and great His might."

The instrumental support was adequate for the task at hand, and Oliver's approach was clear-cut and well-defined. Because of the nature theme of The Creation, Haydn, known for his good-humored music, amused his audience with plenty of musical references to words in the text. For example, the audience chuckled at the low horn trills which represented a roaring lion. And of course, all heard what a contrabassoon sounds like during Raphael's "By heavy beasts the ground is trod." The biggest complaint should be lodged against the exceedingly staid harpsichordist, who produced little more than boring broken chords and simple arpeggios. All in all, though, the concert choir maintained a high level of singing and will probably do so for the semesters to come.

Symphony Orchestra

Rose Mary Harbison riveted audiences in March with the symphony orchestra, seizing attention with her violin tone. Her violin brought a seamless continuity to even the least legato of passages. The crescendos for Harbison's performance were composed by her husband, John, who provided two sets for the performer to choose from. John Harbison was imposing his mark; yet, it was striking and attention-grabbing like Beethoven, while providing a natural transition into the music which followed. It went well with the generally avant-garde style of playing of his wife.

The symphony, under guest conductor Craig Smith, was splendid. Percussion was really in top form for a piece by Aaron Copland, brilliantly timed and powerfully evocative. At the other end of the tension scale, we heard a delicately-colored flute solo of some distinction. And then there was that easy-sounding violin pizzicato, the magnetic lilt of the rhythmic dance, and a fiery and precise trumpet solo. All of the orchestra performed well, closely held together by Smith in one of their greatest evenings of music making.

October saw confidence tether the musical potential of the symphony orchestra and its soloist John Ito. The orchestra wavered throughout the night's performance of Walton's Viola Concerto and Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 between poise and musical decisiveness. During the first movement of the Walton concerto, a weak rapport between Ito and various woodwind soloists suggested the players were not yet fully focused. Even the dubious entrance of the viola's second subject confused the bitter-sweet duality around which the piece develops. However, the last movement remained the players' turning point. Here richness of counterpoint emerged from the ensemble's music-making, especially during the finale's fugal tutti. Quite dramatically, the bold appearance of the bass clarinet solo seemed to reaffirm the players' conviction.

The last half of the evening's program showcased the talents of the woodwinds with Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. Indeed, the players caught much of the rural splendor of Beethoven's evocation of nature. Especially radiant was the interplay between the oboes, flutes, and clarinets; but the violins seemed to bask too much in the lusciousness of their sound. In throwing off the balance, the violins took much of the bite out of the rustic edginess of the third movement.

Two 20th-century Russian composers were featured in the symphony orchestra's concert in December. Under the direction of conductor David Epstein, they played Serge Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 and Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 42. The soloist in the Prokofiev concerto was Harvard sophomore Sophia Chen. The orchestra (especially the exquisite wind ensemble) fared well with the broad, melodic passages of the Prokofiev, but trouble appeared early in the violins during some of the fast motoric runs that are counterposed against the piano's bravura passages. 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. Typical of Shostakovich, the Symphony No. 5 contains many passages of stark textures and jagged melodies, where the strings reach into the highest registers. Despite a rough start, the whole orchestra was able to pull together for the marvelous third movement, excellently shaped with great intensity. Unquestionably the most exciting sounds came from the brass section which played fantastically, most notably the trumpets. The last section of the final movement seemed intentionally appended specifically for the brass players.

Premiere Orchestra

Steve Reich's Tehillim, the first non-premiere work by the Premiere Orchestra, was conducted by Alan E. Pierson '96 in May. Music and Theater Arts Lecturer Pamela Ambush, who coached the Premiere Orchestra singers, also sang high soprano as a member of the West Germany premiere and the studio recording of Tehillim. Although Tehillim is Reich's most traditional (i.e. chromatic, engaging, and non-repetitive) work, it still reflects the simplicity and directness of minimalism. The music, set to the text of four Hebrew psalms, was written for four singers and an orchestra. As Reich composed it, Tehillim has an intricate and enjoyable rhythm, but in Kresge, the six percussionists could barely be heard over the amplified string instruments. This lost rhythm was really the performance's only major shortcoming. The opportunity to demonstrate the strange appeal of polyrhythm, so deftly employed by Reich, was lost.

Choreographed dancers accompanied the music of the Premiere Orchestra. At some times, the dancers didn't match the mood or tempo, making the choreography seem irrelevant. The music should have been only a background to dancing that blended emotionally or thematically with the piece. At no time could the dance have been interpreted, even loosely, to say: "The heavens declare the glory of God/The sky tells of His handiwork" (Psalm 19). On the whole, the precision of the performance reflected the hard work and talent of the musicians, and Reich's musical ideas were communicated clearly. Reich's indeterminate and ethnic-sounding harmonies, and the unpretentious beauty of minimalist music, were impressive.

Chorallaries and Logarhythms

The Chorallaries' annual "Concert in Bad Taste" lived up to the usual crude and melodic expectations. At times, they seemed to lapse into a repeat of their performance from the previous year, with LSC parodies and Top 10 lists. Aside from taking aim at Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, and former Associate Dean James R. Tewhey, they exploited the John and Lorena Bobbitt story with blood-stained boxer shorts, part of the 1994 Chorallaries merchandise, which figured prominently throughout the program.

Perhaps the best television-based skit was a pseudo-homage to the last season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." The skit featured the crew of Picard's Enterprise face-to-face with villain William Shatner, who threatens the crew with relentless bad acting and his (in)famous rendition of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." The formal conclusion of the show, necessitated the traditional MIT theme, "We Are the Engineers," as well as the two encores performed were identical to those from last year: "Cab driver in New York" and "Necrophilia Down by the Graveyard." The sheer catchiness of the tunes, playfulness of singer-audience interaction, and polish on the Chorallaries' Wall of Sound were good enough to earn these two encores the loudest applause of the evening.

The Logarhythms, who interrupted the bad taste concert, had their own chance to shine a week later. Their concert was up to their usual standards of melody and humor, but contained few surprises. After some guest performances from the Smith College Notables and the Wellesley Tupelos, the Logs took the stage presenting a mixed bag of a capella entertainment, with the spotlight on TV theme songs, barbershop tunes, and pop songs. The first comic interlude was the presentation of the "Top 10 Headlines Least Likely to be Seen in The Tech," a collection of such impossibilities as number five: "MIT Student Pays Tuition with Coop Rebate." The number one item was, "LCA & GAMIT Host Homophobia Conference." We were flattered with such attention. A very nice, well-arranged lullaby followed.

The potential highlight of the evening, Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," fell short of expectations when the Logarhythms strayed from the original. McCormick again had the spotlight and let people down with a very square performance. Freddie Mercury is an imposing act to follow, but McCormick's choice of precision over passion was poor. The transposition of the mock opera section down into the range of normal male voices was also disorienting. After closing with the traditional "Arise All Ye of MIT/Take Me Back to Tech," the Logs returned to rowdy requests for encores. Their versions of the Indigo Girls' "Gallileo," and Depeche Mode's "Somebody" were serviceable, and both arrangements were of the usual high quality expected from the Logs; but they were too usual, which may be a complaint on the Logs' whole set. On both their new CD and in the performance, the Logarhythms acquitted themselves with their usual professionalism, but there were no surprises and very few twists on the same familiar themes.