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3 centuries played on 13 strings

MIT String Sinfonietta

Killian Hall, February 24.

By Thomas Chen
Staff Reporter

Something very exciting and wonderful happened on Monday evening in Killian Hall. The 13-member MIT String Sinfonietta made its debut concert featuring Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, Grieg's Holberg Suite and Britten's Simple Symphony. This concert provided a completely different musical experience than the ones that I am used to at MIT.

The program consisted of three pieces for strings ensemble, and each of the past three centuries was represented by each work. The Baroque era of music was highlighted; each piece either contained Baroque elements or was actually from the Baroque period. The choice of music was obviously chosen with unity in mind.

The concert was different in its style of presentation and performance. One difference was that the violins and violists play standing up, and although it is not out of the ordinary for a period performance, it gave an impression of alertness that might otherwise be lost had they been sitting.

Another difference was the lack of a conductor. Instead of receiving direction from a single person, players were required to be aware of each other and listen closely to what their neighbors were doing.

Playing without a conductor may seem like a trivial point, especially to those who are not familiar with classical music. Chamber musicians play without conducting, and what the MIT String Sinfonietta does can be considered an expanded version of chamber music.

Indeed, one could see and hear many moments when the players were really paying attention to each other, as if they were playing intimate chamber music. This requires the highest order of musicianship to judge things like uniformity of attack, evenness of balance, and gradations of dynamics. The members of the Sinfonietta showed this in abundance with accomplished playing across the board. The two sarabands were especially lovely, and I was impressed by the high level of coordination in the pizzicato movement of the Simple Symphony.

When asked about the difficulties of playing in such a group, violinist and MIT String Sinfonietta founder Annie Chen '97 said, "The size of the group demands that each member becomes a leader, especially since we play without a conductor. We face difficulties that both large orchestras and string quartets face. The group is large enough so that so that staying together within and between sections isn't exactly trivial."

The awareness between all players is crucial in music where important events occur in rapid succession. "The level of interaction among the musicians is similar to that of chamber music because we each really need to know what the other sections are doing so that we come out playing more than just the notes on the page - we also add along musical ideas and feeling," Chen said.

Furthermore, I noticed how the musicians rotated as principals for each piece, demonstrating how all the players are regarded as equals. Another member of the Sinfonietta has described this rotating arrangement as an opportunity for every member to gain experience as an ensemble leader.

Despite some vigorous and involved playing from the musicians, there were a couple passages where the music seemed to get stuck or seemed to end without preparation. Parts of the Grieg (Gavotte and Rigaudon) could have used extra pushing, and the ending of the Simple Symphony was too abrupt for my taste. I would attribute these shortcomings to the absence of a conductor. As this group is newly formed, problems like this will eventually be solved as the musicians get to know each other's playing more.

The Sinfonietta was formed last October to establish, as Chen puts it, "a serious chamber orchestra where the members met consistently to rehearse and study string orchestra repertoire." Given that nothing like this is currently offered to the MIT community, her idea was well-founded. Although the group is purely student-run, it receives input during rehearsals from a variety of MIT music faculty.

Such high-quality playing stimulates my interest for the Sinfonietta's upcoming concert in April. Given that the group is willing to augment the current string body with winds, brass, and percussion to play the Bach Magnificat and Cantata No. 161 with the MIT Chamber Chorus, I wonder if it will expand its repertoire of orchestral works into Mozart and Haydn symphonies. As for now, the Sinfonietta's current repertoire is focused on string serenade-type pieces, but if I may say so, my personal wish would be to hear them pull off the Bartok Divertimento.