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Two Choruses Are Better Than One

MIT, Brown Choirs Combine in Concert of Rachmaninoff and Lukas Foss

By Jeremy Baskin

The MIT Concert Choir and the Brown University Chorus

Conducted by William Cutter and L. Frederick Jodry

Kresge Auditorium

May 2, 8 p.m.

There is something inherently noncompetitive about music. Musicians constantly work toward technical and artistic goals, but unlike marathon runners, the finish line is not so tangible. In many ways, music is a never-ending pursuit of the unattainable, quite different from our more mundane activities: preparing food, doing homework, and playing sports.

Yet when two choruses from peer schools -- schools that compete on both the sports field and the pages of U.S. News & World Report -- perform one after the other on the same program, one can hardly resist the urge to compare them outright.

These were the thoughts that ran through my head as I listened to the beginning of Friday night’s first installment in a home-and-home series between the MIT Concert Choir and the Brown University Chorus at Kresge Auditorium.

The visitors took the stage first, to warm applause from the modestly sized crowd, and began with a clean reading of the British composer John Taveners’ Magnificat, a short religious work in which a few chromatic motives are repeated numerous times. While the sopranos perhaps sounded too meek, the ensemble projected an effective mood of aloofness.

Brown’s chorus finished their set with three Finnish works: Sydameni Laulu by Jean Sibelius, Kevatunta by Leevi Madetojas, and Lehto, by Einojuhani Rautavaaras. Having been fully warmed up by some 20th century British baroque music, the Ivy singers were prepared to show off their lyrical side in these sentimental works.

Home-field advantage was readily apparent when the MIT Concert Choir strode onto the stage to perform American composer Lukas Foss’ Psalms. The applause was more vibrant -- you could certainly tell who had been most successful at getting friends to attend the concert. Foss, a living legend who is beginning his ninth decade on this planet, wrote Psalms early in his life, though late enough to have been formed -- or corrupted, as the case may be -- by Paul Hindemith, Serge Koussevitzky, Fritz Reiner, Louis Moyse, the Curtis Institute of Music, and Yale University, among others.

Brian J. Anderson G opened the piece with an accurate though tense tenor solo, relaxing somewhat when joined by soprano Sonali Muhkerjee ’03, whose softness of tone helped the duet “lift up [their] eyes unto the hills,” as prescribed by the psalm itself.

The choir was accompanied in this piece by two pianists, though accompanied is hardly the right word given Foss’ orchestral writing for the piano duo. Karen Harvey and Henry Weinberger played incisively and convincingly throughout.

After the intermission came the main attraction of the evening, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (All-Night Vigil), a work that this composer of some of the most celebrated piano concertos of all time nonetheless considered his best work, according to the program notes. Vespers consists of various liturgical chants spanning many centuries and continents in their origin.

With both the choruses on stage together, the minor foibles of each ensemble -- the bass of the MIT Concert Choir and the soprano of the Brown University Chorus -- were complemented by strong support from the other ensemble. In other words, the large ensemble was more than the sum of its parts, and for the first time in the evening, a bona fide forte was delivered.

The All-Night Vigil thankfully did not live up to its name in length -- it was concise and explored a wide range of textures in its nine movements. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was Spyridon Antonopoulos’ melting tenor solo. The only uneasiness I experienced involved some minor coordination problems between the basses and the upper voices in “The Great Doxology” and an errant -- though thankfully timid -- soprano entrance later on in that same movement.

A lot seemed to come in twos in this concert: two choruses, two conductors, two pianos; the date was even the second of May. But, as I found myself walking out of Kresge Auditorium at the unusually early hour of 9:30 p.m., I thought that there certainly hadn’t been too much music on that program.