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Brilliant Estampas soloist make concert a gem

THE MIT SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

Conducted by David Epstein.

Featuring Douglas R. Abrams, piano.

Works by Brahms, Beethoven, and Jose L. Elizondo.

Last Saturday in Kresge

By Thomas Chen
Staff Reporter

Student compositions, a recurrent motif for the MITSymphony Orchestra these days, have made its concerts much more lively. Following hard on the heels of Alan Pierson's Music for Orchestra, the MIT Symphony Orchestra under Music and Theater Arts Professor Emeritus M. Epstein premiered Estampas Mexicanas, written by MIT graduate Jos Luis Elizondo '95 last Friday night in Kresge Auditorium. Although the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2 and Brahms Symphony No. 1 were capably performed and enjoyable to listen to, the highlight of the evening was certainly Elizondo's Estampas Mexicanas.

The outset of Estampas makes one immediately aware of the fantastic colors and rhythms which imbue this work. The piece follows a basic tempo scheme of fast-slow-fast, where the slow movement is notable for an ostinato percussion pattern, a minor variation of a theme from the first movement, and a surprising bird call ( la Respighi). The program notes include a page of text written by Karina Melendez and Elizondo himself. The text, which focuses on Spanish colonialism and the discovery of a new Mexican identity, is divided into three sections that correspond to the work's three movements.

While I found the text difficult to penetrate, I was easily won over by Elizondo's colorful orchestration and rhythmic flair. His gift for melody was faithfully executed by the orchestra members, who really animated the joy in the music. I have never heard the violins sing as well as they did in the first and third movements, and the winds seemed to provide an endless flow of sunshine that reflected the Latin American origins of the musical landscape.

As with Music for Orchestra, percussion plays a central role in Estampas. The MITSO percussion played with characteristic vitality and brought to life a dimension of music that is so rarely heard in "traditional" European classical music. Elizondo received a standing ovation from members of the audience who clearly enjoyed the piece as much as I did.

Featuring student composers with a student orchestra is completely logical. In fact, it is such a good idea that it begs one to wonder why it was not implemented earlier. Consistent with bringing more student composers to the MIT community's attention, the MITSO has recently presented several student soloists of high musical talent. The latest is pianist Douglas R. Abrams '96, whose nimble fingers have little to fear as they traverse Beethoven's rapid passages. If memory serves me correctly, Beethoven's second piano concerto was written before the first one and carries the number "two" because it was published later. As Epstein points out in the notes, this concerto is the least frequently performed, perhaps because it lacks the overt drama of the other four and is more akin to the temperament of Haydn.

Whatever the reason, Abrams certainly played it as if it were the most important of all Beethoven concertos. He achieved the requisite clarity and manual dexterity for this piece and was quite effective in the first movement's cadenza, where what seemed like a massive slow-down after the initial fugue really grabbed my attention. For all the sincerity that he obviously holds for the work, I find his interpretation somewhat humorless, especially in the last movement; I expect the little "hiccup" figuration to bring a smile to any curmudgeonly face. Perhaps a tad sedate as far as musical highjinks are concerned, Abrams impressed with a flexible tonal palette and admirable musical integrity.

The orchestra's contribution to the Beethoven and Brahms was markedly less successful than their brilliant showing in the Elizondo. In vivid contrast to their expertly prepared Schubert and Mozart several weeks ago, the orchestra skipped over details like ensemble and intonation. And in the Beethoven, Abrams was required to deftly negotiate some mid-air collisions with the orchestra.

The MITSO players played well where it counted most. The great horn melody that introduces the chorale-like melody in the violins in the fourth movement of the Brahms is one of the great moments in that piece. The horns and winds were rock steady as they prepared the strings for the beautifully played final theme of the symphony. Distinguished solos included the expressive oboe and absolutely radiant playing of the concert master in the symphony's slow movement. Hearing that horn melody in the last movement alone made the concert worthwhile; hearing Estampas Mexicanas made the concert truly satisfying. I hope the orchestra program keeps a good thing going by regularly featuring talented student composers.