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A Brilliant Haydn at MITSO

Harbison Explores Unimagined Corner of the Repertoire: Pre-1850 Music

By Bogdan Fedeles

Staff Writer

MIT Symphony Orchestra

John Harbison, conductor

Rose Mary Harbison, violin

Kresge Auditorium

March 20, 8 p.m.

A few days before spring break, the MIT Symphony Orchestra slipped in its first concert of the calendar year. Institute Professor John H. Harbison was the guest of honor, leading the orchestra in a program featuring the world premiere of Professor Brian Robison’s “Imagined Corners,” a pale rendition of Brahms’ fabled Violin Concerto, and a redemptive, well-performed Symphony No. 90 by Haydn, in front of an audience scattered among a lot of empty seats in Kresge Auditorium.

The concert opened the world premiere of Imagined Corners (1999), a piece described by the composer as an “imaginary travelogue,” featuring musical pictures from four very different corners of the world: an Irish folksong, a jazzy blues tune, some Japanese ceremonial music, and the sound of the chimpanzees in the tropical forest.

Although each movement is very descriptive and the music very elaborate, the piece as a whole lacks a unifying goal, as the simple juxtaposition of the movements is not convincing. Nevertheless, this demanding piece received a strong performance, with MITSO displaying its ability to play new music effectively. The challenges posed by the modern writing were handled well under Harbison’s energetic and stylish conducting. Lyrical winds in the first movement balanced well-played brass parts in the faster second movement. The strings showcased their solid ability, especially in the ultra-repetitive parts of the other two movements, which featured high harmonics and long tremolos.

The long-expected performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto that followed was at least one level lower in quality and intensity. Brahms’ masterpiece was often superficially treated, with many inconsistencies in tempo, balance and even intonation. Soloist Rose Mary Harbison delivered a distant, unconvincing performance, with very little effusion and a lot of nervousness. The first movement started uneasily, and progressed without its due intensity and emotion. The insecure solo line was often overwhelmed by a loud and unrefined orchestral accompaniment. However, the cadenza, written by John Harbison, her husband and partner in crime for the evening, was the high point of the performance.

The second movement flowed too fast and lacked a sustained intensity throughout. The solo oboe line seriously challenged and even outran in expressivity the solo violin part, but other overall balance issues arose, making the second half of the movement sound adrift, with no emotional goal. The third movement started a little bit more convincingly but very soon lost its coherence with a too soft and insecure solo line drifting along a loud and sterile orchestral counterpart. The ending of the piece made the audience feel relieved that it was over, and that MITSO could make it to the end.

By contrast with the Brahms, the second half of the concert, featuring Haydn’s Symphony No. 90, sounded fresher and more refined. A lesser-known late Haydn symphony, this piece nonetheless contains both deep meaning and musical humor.

The slow introduction to the Allegro is a hilarious search for the main theme, stuck in an undecided tempo and meter. The effect was inadvertently amplified by some ensemble desynchronizations at the very beginning. However, once the Allegro started rolling, the orchestra gained more and more in brilliance and impetus. Haydn’s ample symphonic gestures enfolded with ease and good taste throughout the first movement, which also benefited from excellent dynamic contrasts.

The theme and variation idea of the second movement came out intensely lyrical, thanks to good ensemble work and precise articulation. The flute and oboe lines, played by Daniel E. Stein ’05 and Stavroula K. Hatzios ’05 respectively, were sublime and magical, making up for the messier string figuration. Similarly, the gallant yet unsettling Minuet featured very good winds and brass, but a less convincing string section.

The finale, however, offered the strings a chance to redeem their glory, and they actually took it. The overwhelming figuration, at incredible speed, sounded fresh and intense. Towards the end, Harbison fully exploited the humor of the piece. The music stops after a convincing C major cadence, but right when the audience is preparing to applaud, the music starts again, delivering a long and elaborate coda. And again, the music stops on with a similar cadence; then, a long pause is proof of the overall confusion. This time, it is the end. MITSO’s sharp responsiveness to Harbison’s exact and intense gestures made this ending extremely delightful.

MITSO will play again on May 9, a concert featuring guest conductor David Allan Miller, the music director of the Albany Symphony Orchestra. In the program, we will meet again with Haydn (Symphony No. 44) and Brahms (Symphony No. 1), along with Harbison’s Piano Concerto. We can only hope that Brahms will sound at least as good as Haydn, but definitely the next concert is a must-go.