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MIT Symphony Orchestra & Concert Choir

A Great Start to a New Season

By Fred Choi

Kresge Auditorium

October 16, 1999

Directed by Dante Anzolini

Choir preparations by Dr. William Cutter

Despite the late start, the MIT Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir’s Family Weekend Concert last Saturday, October 16, was a wonderful opening concert to a new season. Both the Symphony and Choir under the direction of conductor Dante Anzolini, with the Choir prepared by Dr. William Cutter, were in fine form for the audience in the packed Kresge Auditorium, and I look forward to hearing both of them in future concerts this year.

The first half of the program focused on the MIT Symphony Orchestra and featured the well-beloved Enigma Variations (Op. 36) by Edward Elgar, as well as student Petra Chong’s new work Into the Unknown Region and Institute Professor and Pulitzer-Prize winning composer John Harbison’s Remembering Gatsby: Foxtrot for Orchestra. Of these, the Variations were perhaps the most ambitious project, since the work is well-known and consists of fifteen distinct sections, each with its own character and difficulties. Nevertheless, the Orchestra tackled the piece with vigor and aplomb.

One of the greatest difficulties of any piece of multi-movement music is getting the character and tempo of each section from the very beginning. This is especially true of the Variations, as the moods are many and varied and, with the exception of the final variation, the sections are less than a few minutes long, some as short as thirty or forty seconds. This ability to switch moods quickly and accurately is a significant difficulty, and for an ever-changing orchestra like the MITSO, which has only been playing with its new body of members for a month and a half, it is no surprise that there were several times that it took too long for the orchestra to get the character of the variation. This was especially apparent in the second, the ninth (the popular “Nimrod”), and the eleventh mercurial variation.

Other than this difficulty, the Symphony’s performance of The Enigma Variations was well-executed. As has come to be expected, the lower strings, particularly the cello section, could be counted on to play with virtuosic assurance and lucid phrasing. The moments, like the end of the introductory section, the theme, and the twelfth variation, in which the cello section was the focus of attention, were simply delightful. The upper strings tended to lose their forward momentum (for example, in the first variation), or neglect to breathe together (ninth variation), but they deserved appreciative applause for the numerous difficult sections of scales, chromatic figures, and arpeggios that they played with great proficiency. In addition, the brass and the percussion brought nice energy to the ensemble, and although in general the woodwinds played well, one felt that they could have had a bit more presence, even when not being the center of attention. The Variations also enabled several soloists to shine, among them the musicians on viola, solo cello, and clarinet, each of whom played with impressive skill.

The second work, Petra Chong’s Into the Unknown Region, was a wonderful chance to hear music by a student composer. The tone, although fairly straightforward in its intentions, was never boring and included a range of moods. Of particular note were the sunny melodies in the middle section of the piece and the inspired orchestration which demonstrated Chong’s aptitude in writing for orchestra. Examples of this included a wonderful oboe and flute duet, a memorable horn solo, and notable trumpet, bassoon, and harp parts. Near the end of the piece, a snare drum and wood block were used to great effect to signal the shift in mood. The orchestra performed this work with confidence, and one hopes that we will have the opportunity to hear this and other works by this composer in the future.

The last work of the first half was the much-anticipated Remembering Gatsby, originally conceived as an overture to the opera based on Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel. Gatsby will be receiving its premiere by the New York Metropolitan Opera on December 20th of this year. Although the Symphony played the introduction with a little more dissonance than written, in almost all other respects the performance of the piece, which also happens to be a set of variations, was quite impressive. The subsection of the orchestra played the light foxtrot section with great zest, and the orchestra as a whole did a very nice job with the slightly quirky parts of the work, especially in the latter half, where the main themes are fragmented and then repeated and intertwined. Also, recognition should be given to the violin, saxophone, and trumpet players for their beautifully executed solos. The last few bars were played with such a perfect lightness that it brought a smile to my face and enthusiastic applause from the audience.

After intermission, the MIT Concert Choir joined the orchestra on stage for a trio of opera choruses, starting with the introduction and chorus from Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni. Although the Symphony produced a strong sound, they did not play with a breezy enough style necessary for the piece. Once the choir entered, the orchestra was able to match the choir’s light, easy tone. The choir, well-prepared as always, sang the Italian words and the lyric notes with seemingly little effort. But the most impressive was the intelligible character they infused into their singing. The personality they conveyed made it easy to overlook the occasions upon which the sopranos sang noticeably sharp or the male voices failed to be in tune with each other, and appreciate moments such as the excellent solo sections.

The Intermezzi from I Pagliacci and Manon Lescaut, the former by Ruggeiero Leoncavallo and the latter by Giacomo Puccini, gave the choir a break between choruses, and a chance for the Symphony to enjoy the gorgeous melodies from the Italian operas. The Symphony demonstrated a good grasp of these fairly uncomplicated works.

The choir performed the second chorus, “Chorus of the Enslaved Jews” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco even better than the first. The choir’s phrasing was wonderful, and their unison sections were first-class. It was disappointing, however, that the inner strings’ accompaniment figure was so uncharacteristically but obviously ill-prepared.

The concert ended with a rousing performance of “Stomp Your Foot” from Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land. The choir and the orchestra had a lot of fun with the piece, and it was thoroughly enjoyable, from the men’s impressively controlled opening to the joyous ending. The choir sang lines such as “Churning butter, milking cows” with an appropriate mixture of amusement and seriousness, so the piece was easily one of the highlights of the entire concert. Although the choir has tackled more difficult pieces than this in the past, it was a distinct pleasure to hear them make the most of the piece and perform with such authority and brilliance.

The opening concert of this season indicates that this year’s MIT Symphony Orchestra and Concert Choir are ones that are headed for even more memorable performances in the future. Be sure to catch the Concert Choir’s performance of Mozart’s Vesperae de Dominica and Poulenc’s Gloria (November 19) and the Symphony’s performance of Schnittke’s Concerto for Viola (with Professor Marcus Thompson on viola) and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (December 3).