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Beethoven 1, MITSO 0

Morlot, Orchestra Challenged by Eroica Symphony

By Jeremy Baskin

MIT Symphony Orchestra

Kresge Auditorium

Oct. 25, 8 p.m.

There were many reasons to be optimistic before 8 p.m. last Friday night. The MIT Symphony Orchestra, invigorated by a slew of new members, was to give its first concert of the season. For the first time in a while, the orchestra was to be performing with a guest conductor from outside MIT, a 28-year-old Frenchman named Ludovic Morlot. The repertoire, unusually mainstream for this ensemble, included a romantic violin concerto and a classical symphony, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica.”

Only one hero in Eroica

Yet the concert had mixed results, with the first half sounding quite polished but the Beethoven symphony being less convincing.

Morlot’s overly romantic use of rubato throughout was as unconvincing as the unreasonably fast tempo he chose to begin the piece. Probably because of this tempo, there was a feeling throughout much of the exposition that the players were simply scrambling to keep up. Furthermore, there was no consensus on the tempo; for example, the cellos were pushing hard to regain the opening tempo after the repeat, only to meet resistance from the rest of the orchestra.

Even the famous repeated dominant seventh chords were a letdown, as they were prepared too meekly and were played too harshly. Things got a bit hairier as the movement progressed, as much of the transitory material and recapitulation sounded quite shaky.

The second movement, allegedly a funeral march (but certainly not one at Morlot’s brisk tempo), began with a touching solo by oboist Stavroula Hatzios ’05. For the first time in the piece, a reasonable tempo was achieved during the fugue section and, all of a sudden, it started to sound like music.

Hatzios, definitely the hero of the evening, showed fantastic technical ability as she made the vexing solo at the beginning of the Scherzo sound so effortless. But the wonderful mood that she and flutist Daniel Stein ’05 set was attacked viciously by the violins’ statement of the theme, which was as unbridled as the timpani was out of rhythm.

Furthermore, the full repercussions of the defection of the entire horn section from last year were all too audible during the usually noble horn call section of the Scherzo.

The last movement, however, began with well-executed pizzicatos and only improved afterwards. Specifically, the winds sounded gelled, and in general there was much cohesion between winds and strings. The impression here was that technical problems were minor, and the music was therefore able to sing beautifully. The coda was exciting and well received by the audience.

Bruch, Dallapiccola more successful

Before the intermission, Amanda Wang G, a co-winner of last year’s concerto competition, was featured in Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. A staple of the violin repertoire, Bruch’s first concerto is often the first romantic concerto that violin students learn.

MITSO seemed to feel much more at home with this music than with the Beethoven symphony, though a number of very eager first violins appeared at times to be playing their accompaniment to Wang’s solo lines rather energetically. Perhaps some of these people envisioned themselves at the front of the orchestra.

Wang played confidently and expressively, with a good command of the music. A couple of minor flubs were more than made up for by a genuine understanding of the emotions behind the concerto. Morlot was an able accompanist, though ultimately credit must be given to Wang for dealing, at times simultaneously, with rushing first violins and out-of-tune brass playing.

The concert began with Piccola Musica Notturna, by a 20th-century Italian composer named Luigi Dallapiccola. This short twelve-tone piece was given an expert reading by the ensemble, which was led at times by the assertive clarinet playing of Ken Gould G.

Where did it go wrong?

In all, MITSO’s performance on Friday night leaves this listener puzzled.

This orchestra can take a large, emphatic bite out of Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin or Ives’ Fourth Symphony but is thoroughly humbled by one of the giants of the classical period, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The players are, for the most part, sophisticated musicians, yet the ensemble falls noticeably short when playing music with such little room for error.

This observation perhaps counters conventional wisdom, which might say that science and engineering types would have more trouble with freer romantic and contemporary music and would do very well with music from the more square classical period. Yet, on Friday night the culprit in MITSO’s performance of the Eroica Symphony was too much thinking outside the box.

Not all of the blame should lay with the players, though. It would not constitute a crime against humanity for Morlot to have led this piece at conventional tempos, with conventional dynamic contrasts and coloration.

Perhaps MITSO is not yet at a level where it can rehearse with one conductor for five weeks and then start afresh two weeks before the concert with the guest conductor. Is a six-week residency for a guest conductor not possible? It certainly happens with other groups on campus, notably the Festival Jazz Ensemble, which is gearing up for a concert with rising star Magali Souriau, who will have been with the ensemble for more than a month before its concert.

It is worthy to note, though, that MITSO’s audience on Friday night perhaps even eclipsed that of the Wind Ensemble concert that occurred a week prior. The attendees seemed by and large to enjoy the concert, though a few buffoons who appeared to be cheering for violinist Sherman Jia ’06 should probably take their act to the next varsity football game.