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Ptolemy Players

Passionate Pulitzers

By Kevin Der

Ptolemy Players

Killian Hall

Sept. 20, 7:30 pm

Last Friday night, the Ptolemy Players, an MIT chamber music ensemble, gave a performance at Killian Hall featuring works by Pulitzer Prize winners in the field of music composition. The composers represented at the concert included Ned Rorem, William Bolcom, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson, Samuel Barber, and Institute Professor John Harbison. Though all are Pulitzer Prize winners, unfortunately none of the pieces performed were actually the compositions for which the prizes were won. Nevertheless, the group presented their selections with the utmost enthusiasm in a professional and engaging performance.

The concert began with three songs by Ned Rorem titled “Early in the Morning,” “The Midnight Sun,” and “The Lordly Hudson.” They were expertly sung by a single vocalist with piano accompaniment. The first two songs were melodic and somewhat soft, and led into the third which was more flowing and dynamic. The singer had a great deal of energy, which he demonstrated in both his voice and his ability to grin broadly between songs. Rorem received the Pulitzer in 1976 for his composition “Air Music,” an orchestral work consisting of ten Études.

In 1988, William Bolcom won the Prize by composing “12 Etudes for Piano.” He also wrote music based on five of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, which was performed by the Ptolemy Players’ cello, viola, and bass. Before each short piece, the cellist narrated a brief, humorous synopsis of the corresponding tale. Perhaps the most entertaining and well-played fairy tale was “The Hedgehog and the Hare,” in which the hare commits to a footrace with the hedgehog, not realizing his opponent is cheating by having his identical wife stand at the finish line. The racing passages of the strings perfectly connoted the mad sprint of the hare, and at the piece’s conclusion the viola’s descending arpeggio well captured the hare’s defeat.

Before winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for his famous “Appalachian Spring,” Aaron Copland wrote his second symphony, known as the “Short Symphony,” but believed it to be too difficult for orchestra, so he rearranged the music for sextet involving clarinet, piano, and string quartet. This particular piece actually contains entire passages very similar to better-known Copland works such as “Spring” and “Fanfare for the Common Man.” At one point, the violins even played a melody seemingly identical to the opening of “Rodeo.” The loveliest part of the sextet was the clarinet, when it had the opportunity to emerge from the group during its several solos.

Elliott Carter’s “Enchanted Preludes” was performed next by flute and cello. The piece began mysteriously, as if there existed a hint of danger, and then slipped into a magical duet. While for the most part the two instruments collaborated beautifully, at several points the flute produced notes too piercing during a crescendo, which disturbed the flow of the piece and even caught a few members of the audience by surprise. The composer won the Pulitzer Prize for music composition twice, one of only two people to do so, for his Second and Third String Quartets in 1960 and 1973.

Nine vocalist members of the Ptolemy Players performed two hymns arranged by Vigil Thomson, who won the Prize in 1949 by composing music for the film Louisiana Story. The group immediately followed with three choral pieces by Samuel Barber, who was the other to win the Pulitzer twice, for the 1958 opera Vanessa and his first Piano Concerto in 1963. Though the vocal selections performed could have been more varied, they were presented very well and kept the audience engaged throughout.

The final work performed was John Harbison’s “String Quartet No. 3,” written in 1993. Though the piece is quite difficult, the four players played it admirably, all constantly aware of the sounds of their own instruments as well as that of the group. The quartet was clearly well rehearsed and provided a marvelous conclusion to the concert, although the piece may have been somewhat too long for this performance. Harbison won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his composition “The Flight into Egypt.”

Though the theme of Pulitzer Prize winning composers is broad, the Ptolemy Players were able to select a wide variety of repertoire for the strings, piano, winds, and voice. Overall, every piece was performed with great passion and the concert was undoubtedly enjoyable for both the musicians and the audience. MIT can look forward to the Ptolemy Players’ next concert in February, which will feature works by Russian composers including Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Rachmaninoff.