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Music Groups Treat Pre-frosh to Evening Concert

Chamber Orchestra, Percussion Ensemble, Festival Jazz Ensemble, Wind Ensemble, and Chamber Chorus Perform for Pre-frosh

By Jeremy Baskin

On Thursday afternoon, about 750 pre-frosh descended upon the campus to explore MIT and experience tech life for a weekend. On Friday night, five performing ensembles descended upon Kresge Auditorium to showcase the MIT music program to the campus at large, but specifically to the pre-frosh.

With such a goal in mind, and since Kresge only seats about a thousand people, one would have hoped for a bigger crowd than usual; the auditorium was, however, a little bit less than half-full. Compared to the amount of fraternity parties and other social enticements that MIT and Boston had to offer, on the other hand, maybe the Campus Preview Weekend concert didn’t do too badly, after all.

The program started with the Chamber Orchestra’s interpretation of Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances for Lute, No.3. An early 20th-century Italian composer who lived most of his life in Rome, Respighi is known, like the French Maurice Ravel, as a master orchestrator. Respighi’s most recognized work is a trilogy of symphonic tone poems based on ancient Rome: Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals.

Although Ancient Airs and Dances, the piece heard on this program, has no relation to the aforementioned trilogy, the mere placement of Respighi at the beginning of the program, coincidentally or otherwise, immediately evokes thought of ancient Rome in the audience and provided a much-needed continuity with the last piece on the program, Roman Odes, by Michael Weinstein.

Each movement in Ancient Airs and Dances is based on a theme written by a different Renaissance composer. One initially thinks of Stravinsky’s modernization of Pergolesi’s themes in the Pulcinella Suite as the archetypal contemporary composition based on themes from past centuries. After listening to the Ancient Airs and Dances, however, one gets the impression that Respighi was less interested in radically changing the musical content from the original piece than Stravinsky was.

The Chamber Orchestra played an arrangement of the piece (originally by Respighi for lute, as the title suggests) for strings, although a version exists for full orchestra as well. The music seemed to highlight the group’s small size or else the monstrous size of Kresge Auditorium, especially when only 12 string instruments are on the stage. Professional string quartets, however, have been known to fill this hall with their sound.

Pizzicatos in the cellos and basses were very precise, and viola solos soared out beautifully, despite their inherent disadvantage at having the instruments facing away from the audience. The violins, outnumbered in spirit if not quite in number by the other instruments, could have projected their sound more boldly. To compensate for a genuine richness of sound that was not always present for the musicians to settle into, the tempi were taken a bit too fast for the mood in much of the piece. This reviewer gets the impression, having heard many of these players play wonderfully in smaller chamber ensembles, that the Chamber Orchestra isn’t yet quite equal to the sum of its parts. Since those parts are, by and large, excellent musicians, though, the overall performance was still quite enjoyable.

Changes of pace were plentiful in this program. The next ensemble on stage was the Percussion Ensemble. They performed the third movement from Gainsborough, by Thomas Gauger. A member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s percussion section and a former member of the faculty of music at Boston University, Gauger is not simply a fixture but a bright light in the world of performing, composing, and teaching percussion.

The third movement (Presto) of Gainsborough is lively and exciting and employs the concepts of melody and harmony, just not in conventional ways. Hearing xylophones and marimbas carry the melody should remind pianists of the percussive roots of their instrument.

The Percussion Ensemble, which performed this piece in its entirety earlier this year, worked hard to give this movement the edginess and adrenaline it needs, and for the most part, rhythmic precision was maintained. It’s too bad that the logistics made for such a large separation between the conductor and the musicians and also between the musicians and the audience; they were for the most part at the back of the stage with about 40 empty chairs (for the upcoming ensembles) in front of them.

“Another piece, another genre” could have been the theme of this concert, as the Festival Jazz Ensemble stepped up to the plate to deliver a swinging rendition of Oliver Nelson’s Stolen Moments. Born in St. Louis in 1932, Nelson, an alto saxophonist, studied composition with noted classical composer Elliott Carter. Although Nelson did compose some classical pieces, he is best known for his jazz compositions; some would say that Stolen Moments is his best piece.

The Festival Jazz Ensemble did an excellent job of performing the piece. The rhythm section, solid as a rock, served as a reliable base for the ensemble. Many pleasant wind solos were heard; the only things that seemed to be lacking were some solos by members of the rhythm section.

The Wind Ensemble closed out the program with two pieces. The first was Postcard, by Frank Ticheli, a 43-year old composer and faculty member of University of Southern California. A short, rhythmic work, Postcard showed off the different sections of the Wind Ensemble, which played the piece with excellent cohesion.

The program closed with Roman Odes, by Michael Weinstein. It was commissioned in memory of John Corley by the Wind Ensemble and given its premiere three weeks ago by the Wind Ensemble and the Chamber Chorus in Kresge Auditorium. The piece is scored for wind ensemble, small chorus, and solo French horn.

In his spoken introduction to the audience, Weinstein described what he was looking for when he came upon the texts of Horace that he subsequently set to music: “... something outside the arena, outside conquering the world, about the Romans. There’s not much, but there is Horace.”

The quasi-liturgical, quasi-tonal piece was given an even better performance this time than it had been given three weeks ago. Especially improved was the movement for brass octet.

Jean Rife’s horn playing, from the balcony, was refined and expressive as always. The chorus, singing very well throughout, had some difficulty projecting over the wind ensemble, although one could hardly blame the chorus for that problem of balance. The opening and closing movements, which involved processions onto and off of stage, respectively, were very effective with the lighting, but proved to be extremely difficult to coordinate rhythmically.

One final comment about the program involved the lighting. Given the high quality of all the groups performing, it was unfortunate that the evening had to be tarnished by somewhat amateurish lighting. Throughout the entire night, the lights were too dim, except when pieces were finished and the players took their bows. It is not a crime if a little extra part of stage that doesn’t have musicians on it is lit, especially if it helps the audience feel as if they’re not in a cave with a tiny light at the end with some musicians in that light.

No good audience member, however, would let such small issues ruin an enjoyable evening of music, though, as this evening certainly was.