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Electrifying MITSO

Bringing People Together With Music

By Bogdan Fedeles


MIT Symphony Orchestra

Kresge Auditorium

March 16, 2002

Classical music is not meant to be unsolvable or distant, but rather a transforming experience that helps people transcend their ordinary lives, while connecting with the innermost structures of their selves. More than that, symphonic music requires great ensemble effort that brings people together in the creation of the musical enterprise. The connection between people, both performers and spectators, is the nature of classical music. MIT Symphony Orchestra proved this last Saturday by delivering a marvelous concert to the audience packing Kresge auditorium. Under the direction of Dante Anzolini, the orchestra interpreted four dances from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto (with Andrew L. Wong ’04, soloist), and Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 4.

Copland’s Rodeo is a well-known ballet about cowboy life. The story behind it is simple and humorous, a fact reflected by its musical character. MITSO performed four dance episodes from Rodeo, highlighting Copeland’s ability to utilize well-known folk songs to create humorous effects in colorful orchestral works full of wit and rhythmic verve.

MITSO recreated the party-like atmosphere from Buckaroo Holiday with accurate but joyful playing and very good intonation. The percussion stringently punctuated the often disjunct musical phrases suggesting the lighthearted western rhythms. In contrast, Corral Nocturne flowed without percussion in a slow dialogue between winds and strings. The precise articulation of strings conveyed exactly the feeling of tranquility intended for this movement.

Saturday Night Waltz brought back the party atmosphere. The tuning fifths started on the strings and continued with quotes from more folk songs. An expressive bassoon played a bass line on top of which a dreamy, well-intonated string melody developed. Finally, Hoedown burst with enthusiasm, first through rapid, arpeggiated piano accompaniment, then through more percussion, which set the rhythm for the cowboy music to follow. The witty stops and sudden dynamic contrasts contributed further to the general exuberance of the piece. MITSO showed the expressive ranges of the piece by delivering a convincing, accurate, and humorous performance.

Solo concertos are often composed as allegories about heroes (the soloist) that stand up and against an oppressing crowd (orchestra), or sometimes only against their own limits towards an ideal. Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor is a wonderful example of such an allegory. One of the most popular violin concertos, Sibelius’ work is remarkable for its lyricism and the virtuosity of the solo part.

Andrew L. Wong ’04 rose to the challenge of this difficult piece, delivering a vibrant performance of Sibelius’ concerto. The clean, virtuosic passages from the first movement blended with heartfelt interpretations of the themes. Wong matched the more reserved attitude of the first theme’s three-note motif, with the intensely passionate character of the second theme’s succession of thirds, sixths, and eights. The orchestra softly murmured the accompaniment before unleashing a darker, intricate development section. The dramatic character of the virtuoso cadenzas highlighted the constant opposition between the orchestra and soloist.

The slow movement of the piece featured a solo theme in a major key, to which the orchestra responded with a contrasting episode in minor. The atmosphere built in mystery as the orchestral violins passionately reiterated the theme with a suave French horn accompaniment. Wong came back to lead in a slower coda, in which dotted rhythms created a constant rhythmic drive, sustaining the movement between the D major and minor episodes. The orchestra graciously took over to develop a long coda that brought the piece to an end.

The second part of the program featured Ives’ Symphony No. 4. Ives sought substance in the musical experience beyond using it as a mere means of expression. This tendency can be clearly seen in his fourth symphony, which is a sort of patchwork that puts together ideas and parts from many of his previous works, aiming for a grand synthesis which can pose and answer more profound questions.

The first movement featured a hymn intonated by the MIT Chamber Chorus. The words question about the meaning of life, to which, according to Ives, the following three movements try to offer various answers. The Prelude also features an opposition between a sonorous, strong, near register (comprised of low strings and piano) and a surreal, distant register (comprised of harps, and some of the violins). MITSO showed versatility and musical sense in recreating this scene of the Prelude.

The second movement, Allegretto, tested the limits of the entire orchestra. The density of sound increases exponentially as the movement unfolds, as Ives adds tune after tune one on top of the other. The resulting nightmare relies heavily on basses, brass and percussion (essentially, the only distinguishable parts), although all the instruments are playing. The cohesion seemed to be there, although such a complex tutti is difficult to understand. Ives didn’t hear his works until many years after he wrote them, and therefore didn’t know how such orchestrations might sound. The effect achieved by MITSO was the intense participation of every member of the orchestra. However, the cohesion of the ensemble seemed to wear out towards the end of the movement.

The third movement is very lyrical and tonal, developing as a complicated fugue. The theme starts on cellos, then is taken over by the violas, horns and finally violins in a calm, serene atmosphere. The string section of MITSO delivered a remarkable performance of this movement. Careful articulation and phrasing highlighted the theme in each of its iterations, while the well-bound dynamics gave color to the piece, especially in its more dull, repetitive passages. The impressive flow and unison of each string section built the fairy-like atmosphere until the organ brought the movement to an end.

The finale has a pronounced religious character, mostly due to the organ chords and the wordless chorus in the shape of another religious hymn. In the background, an incessant percussion motif acts as ligand for the whole movement. MITSO’s performance was much clearer in the heavy tuttis, suggesting the very different nature of this last movement. The musical resources built up dramatically, and soon after the climax, the whole sonorous picture began to disperse slowly, from the low to the high registers. The only thing that seemed to continue indefinitely was the percussive motif, which disappeared last. MITSO showed more confidence in this last passage and a great artistic sense that made the piece captivating and enjoyable. At the end, the audience enthusiastically applauded MITSO’s rendition of Ives’ Symphony No. 4.

In a delightful Saturday evening, MITSO delivered a marvelous performance of beautiful symphonic works. I was utterly impressed by how the passion on the faces of the performers was magically transformed through music into the frenzy of the audience at the end.