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The Ptolemy Players: A Musical Tour Through Eastern Europe

Enchanting Performances of Eastern European Classical Music

By Bogdan Fedeles

Staff Writer

Last Sunday, chamber music enthusiasts had the opportunity to attend a concert featuring the Ptolemy Players, a heterogeneous ensemble made up of MIT students, alumni and affiliates. The program was comprised of pieces by Eastern European composers, namely Prokofiev, Enescu, Janacek, Bartok, Gorecki, Ligeti, and Gorczycki. All the performances were very good and warmly applauded by an enthusiastic audience that completely filled Killian Hall.

The concert opened with Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Opus 34, a beautiful piece for strings, clarinet, and piano. Although the melodic lines reflected the title, the developmental sections were true to Prokofiev’s own style, full of unexpected rhythmic changes, harmonic digressions, unusual dialogues between clarinet and the strings, and virtuosic passages for the piano. The piece was performed very well, with a lot of passion and determination.

Gorecki’s String Quartet No.1, subtitled Already it is Dusk, is a contemporary piece, written in a style that uses the classical attire of the quartet with some unusual modern rhythmic figures and non-harmony. Henryk Gorecki, a modern Polish composer, was inspired to write his first string quartet by a folk song of the same title. The atmosphere of the dusk is beautifully rendered by the second violin and viola, which play a descending motif, while the cello holds long, low notes. The starting sequence is repeated four times and followed by an abrupt fast section full of countless repeated notes. The piece ends with the beginning motif that finally discovers a rather consonant ninth chord. A difficult piece overall, it was played very well by four members of the Ptolemy Players.

A marvelous and very difficult piece, Enescu’s String Quartet No.1 is a mature work that combines a romantic view with innovative elements and some folk motifs. George Enescu, a famous Romanian composer, proves his deep understanding of chamber music resources by utilizing a large scale of musical statement elements. The melodic motifs are developed by all the instruments, and there are nice musical dialogues between registers and at times the rhythmic patterns evolve into torrents of passion. Another very difficult piece, it was handled quite well by another student string quartet.

After intermission, an unexpected episode of choral music followed. Fragments from Missa Rorate by Grzegorz Gorczycki and the lament song Bujdoso, by Gyorgy Ligeti were well-performed by a group of thirteen from among the Ptolemy Players. These pieces, written by modern composers, are very lyrical and feature a traditional and very enjoyable four-part harmony.

Mladi, a wind sextet by Leos Janacek, was the next piece performed. It features alert rhythmic patterns on top of lyrical folk-like tunes, especially in the concise fast movements. The drive was interrupted by solo cadenzas very nicely played by the French horn. The slow movement featured a melody on the oboe and repeated notes motifs that eventually led to an abrupt ending. All the players performed very well, rendering this interesting piece with a lot of passion and statement.

The concert ended with two movements from Bela Bartok’s String Quartet No.5, admirably performed by another string quartet from the Ptolemy Players. Like most of Bartok’s music, this quartet features undecided, sad motifs that wander outside the traditional harmony. The rhythm is essential because it creates tension which is later amplified by particularly dissonant chords. The last movement, very terse and furious, features a fugal development of short motifs and ends abruptly after a very long coda. This performance was probably the best from the whole concert and ultimately proved that Bartok’s mostly incomprehensible music is actually very expressive.

Unfortunately, the program brochure was completely cryptic. The name of the ensemble was spelled only in hieroglyphics, and there was very little information about the composers and the groups that performed. Furthermore, the geography test on the last page was confusing and obviously too hard for an unwarned American audience. Finally, given the dedication of the concert to the celebration of ten years of Russian democracy, I expected to hear more Russian music.

However, the concert was a beautiful event full of enchanting performances that proved once again that MIT students and alumni have a high interest in music.