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Wind Ensemble Presents Stravinsky & Colgrass

Ebony Concerto and Octet, Old Stravinsky Favorites, Coupled with New Dreamy Composition

By Jeremy Baskin

Staff Writer

Igor and Michael: Concertos for Winds

MIT Wind Ensemble, Festival Jazz Ensemble

Frederick Harris, Music Director

Kenneth Radnofsky, alto saxophone

Evan Ziporyn, clarinet

Kresge Auditorium

May 5, 2001

On Saturday night, Fred Harris and the Wind Ensemble presented the music of Igor Stravinsky, Michael Colgrass, and others in its final program of the season. The compositions ranged in size from a wind octet to pieces for full wind ensemble and in date of composition from 1923 to 2001.

The concert started out with a polished version of Frank Ticheli’s “Postcard,” a number that the ensemble had performed about a month ago at the Campus Preview Weekend concert. Friday night’s “Postcard,” unlike the earlier rendition that was buried deep into the concert, found itself at the beginning of the program and served as an excellent appetizer of what was to come.

The melancholic “When Jesus Wept” followed. This composition, second in a trio of pieces called “New England Triptych” by William Schuman, an American composer who spent much of his life in Boston, featured two members of the ensemble in solo roles. Trumpeter Eric Melley and euphonium player Daniel Jochelson ’01 opened up the piece with solos and then a duet, both of them exhibiting appropriate emotion and color in their playing.

The stage was virtually cleared of musicians for the next piece, an octet by Igor Stravinsky, scored for flute, clarinet, two trumpets, two bassoons, and two trombones. The piece proved to be demanding for both the group as a whole and for many of the individual players.

The octet, unlike another Stravinsky piece commonly played around this time of the year, is neo-classical in style, and uses more traditional aspects of composition, such as melody and counterpoint, to convey the composer’s intentions. The program notes contained insight from the composer himself; Stravinsky wrote that counterpoint is “the only means through which the attention of the composer is concentrated on architectural construction.”

A small ensemble of winds (such as an octet) constitutes a special arrangement of musical instruments, since each instrument is itself highly unique in terms of register, timbre, tone quality, and many other attributes. As such, an ensemble such as the wind octet stands in stark contrast to other types of chamber ensembles. The string quartet and brass quintet, for example, usually achieve powerful music making through homogeneity of sound. On the other hand, in chamber wind ensembles such as the octet that Stravinsky wrote for, colors come from the individual instruments, and the collective sound is always a unique brand of sound. One can think of the wind octet as MIT’s campus, in contrast to the string quartet or brass quintet as other more homogenous campuses: its composite value is rather indescribable, except when seen as a gathering of buildings of vastly different shapes, sizes, designs, and materials.

All the players in the octet were very competent, yet it seems as if each was dealing with a different problem -- projection (lack or excess thereof), the attack and release of notes, intonation, or steadiness of pitch. These complaints are minor, as each player did bring a requisite amount of musical experience to the piece and was able to play his or her part convincingly. Seeing as this octet was formed from the more advanced players in the wind ensemble, one would hope that in the future, a greater proportion of small chamber groups like this octet consist of regular wind ensemble members and MIT students. Yet, concerns of artistic excellence should (as they have in this case) trump concerns over organizational membership or heritage.

The final piece before the intermission was Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto,” a unique specimen in the world of pseudo-classical-jazz music. It would be wholly unfair to classify this piece as classical or jazz individually, for a part of its character would be lost. Simply put, it is a concerto for clarinet and jazz orchestra. In reality, it is an adventure that occasionally puts the clarinet, a perfect instrument to bridge jazz and 20th-century classical music, in the spotlight and delightfully dances between genres in an almost teasing manner.

The Festival Jazz Ensemble played very well, and Prof. Evan Ziporyn played the solo clarinet part with tremendous facility and just the right amount of emotional involvement. It is humbling, as a musician, to listen to someone with such a phenomenal sense of musical appropriateness and such a mastery of his instrument.

A general comment about the program is in order. Fred Harris has again provided informative, relevant, and well-written program notes to this concert. In addition to the pre-concert lectures that he usually provides before concerts, these comprehensive program notes give off the impression that Harris shows an exceptional interest in educating the audience, as well as his musicians, as to the context and significance of the music to be performed.

Of particular note for history buffs is the picture on the front of the program, which was also on posters across campus that advertised for the concert. The picture featured composer Michael Colgrass sitting at a piano, striking a pose remarkably similar to that of Igor Stravinsky in a famous 1946 photograph taken by the celebrated photographer Arnold Newman.

The second half started with Michael Colgrass’ “Dream Dancer,” a new composition that received its Boston-area premiere at the New England Conservatory (NEC) last week. Subtitled “fantasy of a soul moving between cultures,” “Dream Dancer” featured the touching alto saxophone playing of Kenneth Radnofsky, a professor of saxophone at three local music schools. Radnofsky also performed the piece last week at NEC with superb accompaniment of the NEC Wind Ensemble.

Comparisons between MIT’s and NEC’s wind ensembles are probably unfair, since MIT is not a music school. That said, the MIT Wind Ensemble played very well, as many players excelled in individual solos and the group as a whole scattered around stage with the dreamy saxophone player occupying the center of the group played together very well.

The concert concluded with Ingolf Dahl’s “Sinfonietta.” A short three-movement piece, the “Sinfonietta” features offstage trumpets near the beginning and the end of the piece. Even though a video camera was used to ensure coordination, it is still impressive to hear offstage players play in time with the ensemble, for vision is but one sense, certainly not the only one used in music.

The Wind Ensemble could have maybe used an extra rehearsal for this piece, or else its members could have had a coffee or granola bar at intermission, since it seemed that the performance of the “Sinfonietta” was somewhat lacking in togetherness and excitement. The ending, a single toot on the bassoon, was quite effective.