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IAPSO captured spirit of a musically rich January


by Thomas Chen
Staff Reporter

IAP seems to offer something for everyone. Being a pianist, I naturally gravitated to IAP's offerings of musical study and entertainment. The whole month was nicely capped off by a performance by the IAP Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Lawrence Isaacson last Friday in Kresge Auditorium. They played Sibelius' Finlandia, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, and Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Eleanor Perrone.

I've decided to use the occasion of the IAP Symphony Orchestra's concert to incorporate and summarize some of the musical experiences I've had this January. I hope to present a small picture of the musical richness that can be found at MIT and encourage other students to explore artistic avenues that are often underplayed in MIT's image.

My winter journey in music started with an informative lecture on Chinese music by Chien Liu. I then attended the 18-hour Wagner marathon organized by Jeannie Markowitz '97. Though many more were present at the outset, about seven of us ingested the entire Ring cycle from Das Rheingold to Gtterdmurung. This veritable Wagner overload was further supplemented three days later by a lecture by Professor of Music Martin Marks.

Though I enjoyed each of these activities very much, perhaps the most involving aspect of my IAP musical experience (outside of practicing piano and watching Nobel Physicist Richard Feynman play the bongo drums in the physics department's Feynman Film Series) came in Lawrence Isaacson's conducting class, organized by IAPSO horn player Chad Musser '97.

Aside from learning the basics of stick technique and beating time, standing in front of a group of musicians was a thrilling and rewarding experience. Although I did not get to conduct during every time, the class was more valuable in the learning of the language of musical performance and communication, which is an added dimension to the "academic" language of harmony and counterpoint.

Isaacson -- a trombonist with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra and previously with the Boston and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras -- has had to follow the conducting styles of people including Seiji Ozawa, Keith Lockhart, and Bernard Haitink. His experience as both as instrumentalist and conductor naturally lends to helping a classroom of young amateur musicians understand how to communicate effectively.

Isaacson's class in conducting can perhaps best be compared to learning a musical sign language, where one is required to "speak" several sentences concomitantly simply by waving an almost-magic wand. As part of his teaching, Isaacson let five students take the helm of the very patient IAP Symphony Orchestra for about 10 minutes each during a rehearsal. Though I was not one of the five, I will give notice now that I am eagerly waiting my turn.

As many in the class were also playing in the IAP Symphony Orchestra, members of the class were welcome to attend rehearsals. As a reviewer, I am typically concerned only with the finished product, but attending rehearsals reveals an equally valid way of involving one's self in the music making process. Though the IAP Symphony Orchestra did not approach unassailable perfection on performance night, their evolution from the very first rehearsals to last Friday was evident and measurable.

"Start on the string... be ready with your bow on the string," the conductor told his orchestra in an effort to mitigate harsh-sounding attacks in the most lyrical parts of the Chopin. The winds also received their share of instruction when they were told to "listen to the bassoon" as a reference for intonation. And indeed, the work that was invested in shaping the music paid off in the many moments of beautiful sound they produced. The brass were nicely scaled in the Beethoven, where they never once seemed too overpowering. Pleasantly surprising was the full viola sound, which in an uncommon display of size required more than one hand to count the number of violists.

The refined orchestral sound was definitely appreciated in the Chopin concerto, where Perrone explored what she described as "Chopin's affinity for Bach, especially in the first movement." Though parts of the concerto have been described as "out of place," Perrone highlighted the "lyricism of the second movement and the drama of the middle section," as well as displayed the dance-like exuberance of the third movement. Playing with the singing legato that Chopin's music pioneered, Perrone also showed that her strength also lies in crystal clear articulation.

After the performance, Perrone commented that her tempo in the last passage of the finale was too fast. But I, her student for over two years, quipped in reply that it was "the Martha Argerich tempo" and was very exciting to listen to. (I remind the reader to consult someone else if he or she requires a more objective assessment. By now, one must think that I would say anything for a free piano lesson.)

Isaacson was at a loss of words to describe his experience with the IAP Symphony Orchestra, but managed to express that the orchestra members "played their hearts out." The evening before the performance, Isaacson wondered if an audience would show up the next night. Judging by the few nanoseconds it took for all the food at the reception to disappear, the emergency shortage of programs, and the loud applause in the end, I would have said the audience couldn't wait.