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MIT Symphony disappoints in group supporting role

MIT Symphony Orchestra

David Epstein, conductor.

Waltraut Wächter, violin.

Kresge Auditorium; March 10, 8 p.m.

By Thomas Chen
Staff Reporter

On Saturday, March 10, the MIT Symphony Orchestra presented a concert rarity in Kurt Weill's Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, Op. 12 (1924) at Kresge Auditorium. The soloist was professional violinist Waltraut Wächter under the direction of conductor David Epstein. The evening concluded with a loose approximation of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36 (1878). Even though the MIT orchestra has yet to spawn tonal accuracy and ensemble cohesion, in all fairness they rendered most of the music with great excitement and plenty of volume. They were especially helped by a spirited soloist in the violin concerto and two interesting scores that both grabbed the listeners' attention.

Most listeners will identify Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony by its ominous "fate" fanfare that the horns play to open the piece. They will further note that the third movement is entirely played pizzicato by the strings, to great effect. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) provided his patroness with a programatic description of the symphony and once told his student Taneyev that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony had served as a general model. Given the thematic unity of Tchaikovsky's score, one can easily see the connection between the two and the reason why it has remained a popular favorite for such a long time.

Coming to an MIT Symphony Orchestra concert for about the sixth or seventh time, one generally becomes numb to the violin sections which sound like someone taking a rake and dragging it over a chalkboard. The audience finally received a respite from this incessant scratching during the all-pizzicato third movement. Epstein probably did the orchestra a favor by choosing a practically languid speed for the first movement, Moderato con anima, which was anything but animated. In fact, no measure of humming from the conductor seemed to sharpen the frequency spread that was coming from the individual string sections. For all the too-frequent mishaps, it was at least gratifying to hear the string body slug through the fast-paced fourth movement at a very respectable tempo.

In addition to the constant meowing from the violins, the winds were surprisingly unpolished in their delivery of their lines. This was particularly evident in the unphrased five-note chromatic patterns that appear in the first movement and recur in the second movement. Moreover, the basoon and clarinet were unable to stay together at the conclusion of the first movement's introduction, and the conveyance of the melancholy melody of the second movement by the oboe and basoon was overly four-square. The horn playing tended to be over boisterous but did artificially add to the excitement of the music. (This was probably no surprise to audience members who heard a brash brass player play an excerpt from Die Walküre during warm-ups.)

Despite scrappy playing in the Tchaikovsky, the Weill Violin Concerto was immensely more successful, though probably less accessible to most of the audience. In fact, Weill's (1900-1950) is a name that is probably vaguely familiar to the average WCRB (102.5 FM) listener. Many of the violin elements (extended pizzicato and motto perpetuo finale) used in this concerto remind one of the Ravel's Violin Sonata (1923-27). Busoni, Weill's teacher, would probably have disagreed with this work, but the MIT audience should be grateful to Wächter for bringing this work to their attention.

If not for some of the original construction and emotional range of the work, Weill's Violin Concerto could certainly pass for a technical showpiece. Wächter had little difficulty tossing off the many double stops and fingerboard leaps that Weill incorporates into his angular, sometimes hard-driven score. Wächter played with excellent musical taste and presented a well-characterized interpretation, especially in the snappy Notturno section. Her pleasure in the work was most evident in the second movement where the soloist engages in a tuneful dialogue with the orchestra. More so than in the Tchaikovsky, the winds were very obedient, albeit with an occasional bobble from the trumpet. However, it is the absence of strings (except for the double basses) for which this member of the audience is thankful.

The MIT Symphony Orchestra sounds like an orchestra in disrepair. The violins never sounded acceptable; the brass are overzealous; and now the winds seem to have lost their cohesion. One looks with effortful optimism (and a spoonful of desperation) to see what John Oliver will do to clean up the group's sound in time for the German Requiem. Regular MITSO patrons will know that this could take a while.