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A great, under-attended concert

By Bogdan Fedeles

Staff Writer

Thursday before spring break, the MIT Symphony Orchestra, directed by Dante Anzolini, presented a marvelous program of classical music, comprised of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Hindemith’s Grablegung from the Symphony, Mathis der Maller, Copland’s Appalachian Spring, and Ravel’s La Valse.

Given the postponement of about two weeks, the concert was under-attended, the audience barely filling about a quarter of Kresge Auditorium. Nevertheless, the small audience applauded enthusiastically the outstanding performance of each piece.

The concert began with Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, a mature work considered to be one of Bartok’s greatest orchestral score. Bartok’s approach is completely original, not only through his music but also through the way he directs the display of the instruments in the orchestra. The strings are divided into two symmetric groups that flank the celesta, the harp, and the percussion instruments. Given this ensemble, the sonorities evolve in a circular fashion, alternating from side to side until the percussion accentuates the tutti’s culmination. This is how the first movement, a slow, intense fugue, develops. Percussion is used sparingly throughout the first two movements, and celesta has its solo part no later than the third movement. That the strings carry on the sonorous tapestry most of the time reminds of Bartok’s earlier work, Divertimento for Strings, particularly in the last movement, where some diatonic elements break through the opaque, chromatic material presented so far. Percussion helps, building a rhythmic drive, and the piece concludes in a lighter, joyful atmosphere. MITSO gave a convincing performance of this piece, highlighting particularly Bartok’s innovative ideas.

Hindemith’s Grablegung (Entombment) is the second movement of the Symphony, Mathis der Maler, a symphonic excerpt from Hindemith’s opera of the same name. This piece was included in the program as homage to the memory of John D. Corley, a beloved conductor of MITSO between 1956-1966. The piece is succinct, yet it features the whole orchestra in very expressive ways. The solos of woodwinds sound like sorrowful laments, while the brass sustains the sad atmosphere with heavy chords. The trumpet and even the tuba have noticeable interventions, contributing to the overall feeling of restlessness and distrust. The sadness is eventually attenuated right before the ending, when major chords whispered in the strings are intonated by the horns. The performance of this piece was very good, showing individual solos admirably intermeshed in a homogenous orchestra.

Copland’s Appalachian Spring is a wonderful inspirational piece, which invokes the long-awaited season of this time of the year: the spring. Written as a ballet that underlies a very simple story of marriage and revival -- symbols of the spring -- the piece unfolds as a diatonic, marvelous musical painting with strong and characteristic American accents that Copland has always strived for. The basic triad is arpeggiated in the beginning, then over and over in different keys becoming a leit-motif of the piece. As major chords are predominant, and dissonances are sparingly used, the whole atmosphere breathes a light, joyful spring air. Time coordinates are suppressed as the music moves freely, with almost no rhythm; the meter changes often and erratically, contributing to this atemporal feeling of vitality and joy. MITSO enchanted the audience by performing admirably this remarkable seasonal piece.

Finally, the concert came to its main attraction point -- Ravel’s La Valse, a piece famous for its complex orchestral features and for its intense pictorial sonorities. Ravel wrote La Valse as a musical depiction of Vienna in its glorious years. The waltz was the emblematic element of Viennese music, so Ravel envisioned his piece as a grand waltz that borrows at least the rhythmic balance and the vibrant brass chords of the well-known waltzes written by Viennese composers of the late 19th century. However, the piece is very different from a Strauss waltz. Ravel mixes the characteristic meter with 4/4 bars, creating the impression of imperfection, of stumbling. The brilliance of some chords is opposed with low register figuration, building up an enormous tension. Apparently, we are listening to a slightly unconventional waltz, but eventually, the gloomy details murmured by the basses grow stronger and stronger, prevailing as the piece reaches a climax. The percussion plays an important role, punctuating the phrases where the whole orchestra plays fortissimo. Ravel uses a wide range of percussion instruments, which helps the sonority of each passage to be fresh and slightly different. In the end, the whole orchestral tumult hints toward a hidden violence that may exist in Vienna, a society known for its apparent innocence and interest in arts and beauty. The ending suggests a deception, a defeat, but nevertheless, the piece remains a wonderful orchestral score, full of original musical attitudes and details. Under Dante Anzolini’s baton, MITSO gave an outstanding performance of this piece, full of statement and nuance. The clarity of articulation and the refinement of details came forth in the admirable recreation of Ravel’s music, displaying La Valse as an unsettling, powerful piece.

The whole concert was a wonderful experience illustrating how music can accurately depict natural beauty and deep human feelings with a directness that sometimes transcends our understanding. MITSO and its director Dante Anzolini deserve congratulations for their dedication in making possible these special musical events that help us perceive subtler aspects of our existence.