MIT Symphony Orchestra
An evening of Ives and MahlerBy Fred Choi
One can’t help but admire the MIT Symphony Orchestra for even attempting to tackle such major works as Ives’ and Mahler’s First Symphonies. These two are of such difficulty that a professional orchestra could easily spend half a year working to prepare them for performance, and still not fully perfect them. It is much to the credit of the conductor, Dante Anzolini, that the Symphony’s level of performance of the two works Mar. 13 in Kresge Auditorium was commendably high. Although the concert was not flawless, there were many fine moments that clearly displayed the skill of the group.
The first section of the program was devoted to the first two movements from Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 1 in D minor. However, it wasn’t until well into the first movement (Adagio molto sostenuto) that the Symphony Orchestra as a whole really began to show their true capabilities. The opening English horn solo was played with wonderful control and tone, supported nicely by the lower strings. However, further on, the strings, especially the upper strings, prevented the movement from flowing as it should have. The pauses in their first melody were disruptive instead of fully integrated, the bow changes in accompanying figures were often awkward and disconcerting, and even within long bow strokes there was not even the hint of legato. Also, in a majority of the faster passages the strings lacked ensemble, causing these sections to be murky. All of these contributed to the overall result that the majority of the first movement felt disjointed and incoherent.
After this rough beginning, the Orchestra greatly improved. The introduction to the second movement (Allegro) was excellent, with the solo clarinet and the second violins playing with definite purpose. Here the Orchestra began paying closer attention to Anzolini’s clear conducting, shaping each musical phrase under his guidance. As themes were repeated in different sections, the articulation and style were also matched, to great effect. The strings played more as a cooperative group than they had in the first movement, and two often overlooked instruments, the harp and the timpani, really shone. The movement ended very strongly, highlighted by powerful tremolo and unison sections.
For the most part, the MITSO’s performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major was excellent. There were many wonderful moments throughout all four of the movements, although the first two movements stand out in particular. The opening to the first movement (Langsam. Schleppend. Immer sehr gemachlich) bordered on the sublime, with the strings quietly supporting the woodwinds as they set the early morning scene. When the brass, playing offstage as directed in the score, joined the established musical setting seamlessly, they played with a wonderful warmth and certainty. The flute and clarinet “cuckoos” were lovely, and the opening cello melody was absolutely gorgeous. The rest of the movement was similarly controlled and impressive. The Symphony completely understood the structure of the rather mammoth movement and transitions between sections were oftentimes performed perfectly. The musicians were able to build up the music to wonderful levels of excitement, sustain a quiet intensity, and convey real joy and jocularity with apparent ease.
The second movement (Kraftig bewegt, doch nicht ze schnell) was filled with great energy and really showed off the capabilities of the Orchestra. The middle, quieter section felt a little unsure, but the return to the first theme renewed the Symphony’s sense of control. The third movement (Feirlich und gemessen, ohne ze schleppen) was played well, although the group seemed to have difficulty keeping their concentration. And although there were no painfully blatant mishaps, neither was there anything particularly outstanding in the movement, with the exception of excellent work done by the oboe section.
For the last movement (Sturmich bewegt), the Symphony re-collected themselves and began strongly, but either they lost steam or they were trying too hard to keep the work together by the time they reached the second section. From then on the Symphony began to have definite problems both in the full ensemble and within instrumental sections. Near the beginning the violins’ phrasing was very well-done, but then they failed to mesh well with the cello section, and later the strings and the oboe section were likewise out of sync. Once again the group had a strong sense of the structure and transitions were very well-done, but too many times musicians buried themselves in their music and ignored the clear directions from the conductor.
The performances of the Symphony received a good reaction from the audience in attendance, and their praise was justly deserved. The group of extremely talented individual musicians worked together to present a difficult, but highly enjoyable, program.