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Berlioz & Tchaikovsky

MITSO Discovers Romantic Side with Popular Pieces

By Bogdan Fedeles

staff writer

MIT Symphony Orchestra

Directed by Dante Anzolini

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Opus 23; Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique

Friday, May 11 and Sunday, May 12

Last Friday and Sunday, the MIT Symphony Orchestra, directed by Dante Anzolini, enchanted the audience with a new program of great 19th-century classical music, comprised of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor, Opus 23 and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. The good performance of the orchestra and the soloist were enthusiastically applauded by the rather small audience, responding eagerly to the descriptive beauty of the romantic music. I personally enjoyed this concert a lot, especially the brilliant performance by Jonathan Lee ’02.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor, Opus 23 is a representative piece in the international piano repertoire. A mature work, it presents Tchaikovsky’s romantic vision about music in a vivid dialogue between brilliant piano passages and emotional and passionate orchestral tuttis. The composer was concerned more about the balance between the soloist and the orchestra than the form of the piece itself. As a result, the concerto seems at first a collage of very different ideas connected by long recitative-like passages or delayed cadenzas. However, the concerto maintains its unity at a conceptual level, showing the tormented romantic soul of the composer in search of the right means of statement for his feelings.

The opening of the first movement is a famous introduction whose theme is not heard again. Tchaikovsky’s brings forth a unified picture of the orchestra with the piano contributing both to the accompaniment and melody. The sonority intended is majestic, overwhelming, and brilliant. The conventional themes of the concerto start only after all this sonority fades away in a cadenza-like piano solo. Most of the thematic material is inspired from Russian folklore, but the abundance of ideas does not allow the listener to focus on any of them. In the first two movements, all these ideas share a beautiful tonal simplicity, and their romantic charm flows directly from the passionate heart of the composer. Though the last movement is more dynamic and more adventurous rhythmically, it stays in the cast set by the beginning of the concerto in terms of balance and sonority.

MITSO rendered a good performance of the concerto. Despite a hesitant beginning, once the D-flat-major chords and arpeggios started rolling off the piano, the piece began flowing expressively until the end. Junior Jonathan Lee (winner of the 2000 MITSO concerto competition and student of David Deveau) delivered a convincing performance, full of statement and virtuosity. His clarity of touch and exceptional agility contributed essentially to the brilliant performance of this remarkably difficult piece.

After intermission, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique followed, a romantic piece of excellence. Hector Berlioz completed this piece while he was rather young, and in search of the best means of statement, he kept rescoring and rewriting it for the next 20 years. Inspired by Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony and by a real-life romantic passion for an actress, Berlioz made his music follow a romantic story of unfulfilled passion and love. The protagonist takes a narcotic that allows him to plunge deeply in a fantastic, dreamy world, hence the title of the work. Each one of the five movements follows the course of this sublime experience. Symmetry is also used, and the whole symphony is constructed around the slow movement, with two fast movements flanking two dance-like movements, a waltz and a march.

Another romantic element of the piece is the use of a recurrent musical idea, or idee fixe, that symbolizes both the aspiration of the composer toward his romantic goal and his obsessive infatuation with his beloved one. The first movement (Day Dream, Passions) starts with a sad lamenting motif, which is lost progressively to make room for an exuberant generalized romantic passion. The next movement (A Ball) is rather concise and suggests through its waltz-like rhythm the encounter of the beloved one at a traditional 19th-century ball. Then, the slow movement depicts a scene in the fields, where the hero lies in the middle of nature, meditating to his condition, and suffering from his passion.

A famous dialogue between the English horn (on-stage) and the oboe (off-stage) suggests the shepherds’ songs and clearly highlight Berlioz’ romantic attitude. A sudden change in perspective begins in the fourth movement (March to the Scaffold), where the hero finds himself condemned to death and led to execution. Here the percussion plays an important part, suggesting the noisy crowd and even the fall of the guillotine blade at the end. Finally, the last movement (Dream of a Witches Sabbath) takes us to a surrealistic realm. The true passion is lost, and so is the fixed motif, in a torrent of grotesque noises. The whole presentation of diabolic creatures like ghosts, witches, wizards, and monsters tries to demystify the genuine nature of the original love. The piece, however, is more comic than grave. The whole orchestra is used in its fullness to end this exquisite romantic masterpiece.

MITSO performed Symphonie Fantastique very well, and despite some small hesitations, every movement conveyed its meaning expressively and clearly. The dynamics ranges were appropriate and very well articulated. Berlioz’s romantic dream came forth in a credible and contiguous fashion, with all its tormented passions and distorted imageries.