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MIT Wind Ensemble Delivers

Clarinets at Their Best

By Bogdan Fedeles


MIT Wind Ensemble

Kresge Auditorium

March 15, 2002

The MIT Wind Ensemble, directed by Frederick Harris, presented a program of exquisite classical music Friday night. The program included Gordon Jacob’s adaptation of William Byrd Suite, Evan Ziporyn’s new work, Drill, Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint, Percy A. Grainger’s original setting of a Scottish folk tune, and Gustav Holst’s First Suite For Wind Ensemble. Given the wide stylistic range of the music performed and the intense and colorful performance of MITWE, the concert was a very enjoyable experience for the rather small audience scattered in Kresge auditorium.

William Byrd was one of the renowned English composers of the 17th century, remembered today mostly for his choral music. Early in the 20th century, Gordon Jacob, an English composer from London commemorated Byrd by setting excerpts from Byrd’s madrigals into a wind orchestral suite. The piece’s form and character are reminiscent of baroque music, yet some of the orchestration choices are original. MITWE conveyed the spirit of Byrd’s music in a good performance ranging from intense, passionate sonorities in some passages, to some dull, undecided dynamics in others.

Drill is the latest work of Evan Ziporyn, a professor of music and theater arts at MIT. Ziporyn, featured as the bass clarinet soloist, delighted the audience with a lively performance, enthusiastically sustained by MITWE. Ziporyn showcased the versatility of the bass clarinet. His careful, well-phrased playing in the low registers blends harmoniously with the outspoken yet melodious playing in the high registers. According to composer’s notes, Drill rethinks the role of the soloist by making him initiate each section of the piece. After setting a certain rhythmic course, the soloist plays along with the orchestra, integrating himself into the ensemble very much like a drill sergeant works hard along with his recruits, hence the name of the piece.

Drill is a fun, unsettling piece, featuring complicated, jazzy rhythms and imaginative harmonies. The percussion “chords,” created by many percussion instruments playing together, yield surprising sonorities that further accentuate the character of the piece. A technically demanding piece, Drill put MITWE to a test, which they passed admirably. Coherent ensemble sound, accurate pacing, and good intonation gave a lot of color to the sometimes long and repetitive passages of the piece, but as its title suggests, it is a (musical) drill.

After intermission, the clarinet section of MITWE together with guests Elizabeth Connors (an administrative assistant in music and theater arts on solo clarinet) and Ziporyn (bass clarinet) performed Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint. Putting together 15 clarinets and expecting them to sound in tune can be a risky enterprise, but MITWE clarinetists showed their mastery in a very coherent and accurate performance of this intricate piece. Reich’s attitude towards composition, especially in this piece, can be considered minimalist. He uses very little motivic material and many repeated notes to construct a very complicated counterpoint. The rhythm rather than the harmony stands out and changes frequently by means of syncopation. Nevertheless, New York Counterpoint is an endurance piece, both for the performers and the audience. The intonation and ensemble work of the MITWE clarinetists, aided by the brilliant sonority of Elizabeth Connors and Ziporyn’s accented bass line, made the piece eventually coagulate in a catching experience.

The next piece in the program, Percy Aldridge Grainger’s Ye Banks and Braes O’Bonnie Doon, came with a delightful surprise. Trumpeter Adrian N. Bischoff ’03 appeared in traditional Scottish costume and performed the piece on bagpipes while slowly walking across the auditorium. As the sound of the bagpipes faded in the corridors outside Kresge, the whole ensemble passionately started the intonation of the same piece. The piece, based on a Scottish folk tune makes good use of the sonoric possibilities of the wind ensemble. MITWE played this charming, short piece with energy and color.

Finally, Gustav Holst’s First Suite In E-flat, Op.28 for wind ensemble closed the program. The piece is renowned as one of the cornerstone works for wind orchestras. MITWE hesitantly started the first movement, Chaconne, with unconvincing intonation, especially in the brass section. Later, the movement developed momentum and flowed better. The melodious windings of the convoluted theme came out very clear and musical.

The agitated beginning of the Intermezzo, as well as the lighter episode that followed, showed good cohesion of the woodwinds section and a full ensemble sonority. The last movement, March, gave the brass the opportunity to shine, and highlighted once more the clarinet section, which gave a grave rendition of the theme in their lower register. The good dynamics and energetic playing of the whole ensemble brought the piece to a satisfying ending.

Versatile and musical, the MIT Wind Ensemble, conducted by Frederick Harris, delivered another well-rounded performance, featuring diverse music, good interpretations, and nice surprises.