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ANCIENT RITES OF SPRING AT MIT AND HARVARD

Spirituality, Community Mark Senior House’s Steer Roast and Lowell House’s Arts Fair

By Jonathan Richmond
ADVISORY BOARD

The setting is a colonnaded villa, an inward-looking structure focusing on a courtyard that serves as the stage for this sect’s ritual practices, which are seemingly amplified in their power by the wall separating this strange society from the outside world.

They were checking IDs at Senior House’s Steer Roast, but it seemed as if anyone claiming to be Jack Florey, with The Tech, or looking at least mildly like a misfit could get in. In the courtyard, the gleeful crowd’s anticipation was mounting. Some exotic costumes were on display, including an impressive fairy outfit and a variety of degrees of leather, but mostly the assembled religionists had a regular-MIT look with that special intellectual-deranged feel that characterizes the east end of campus. The nice kids from the west side had not penetrated these walls.

The courtyard filled, and faces appeared at the various levels above it, heightening the sense of concentrated drama. Then, with the crowd lusting for the ancient rites to be consummated, the genial emcee called all to order, and a flag with MIT’s new logo was brought forward and placed below the huge mass of meat to be roasted. Large quantities of flammable liquid were poured on the flag and, to the sound of “The Ride of the Valkyries” and a great roar of approval, the totemic flaming toilet paper roll was launched on its path over the heads of the crowd. It reached its destination, sending up a huge ball of fire engulfing the meat. The MIT logo disintegrated in flames to a wild yell of “MIT BURN!” surely no less ecstatic than the pleasure enjoyed by a stadium of Romans upon the throwing of Christians to the lions. The sacred Senior House “Sport Death” flag -- “Only Life Can Kill You” spelling out the teeth of its skull -- was unfurled on the wall (would they consider burning that?), and suddenly the sky scowled. In the shadow of the darkness a voice called out “I think God may not be pleased with us.”

A “submit to anarchy” t-shirt didn’t quite reveal the truth about Senior House. This was not anarchistic, but a carefully-choreographed ritual, as rich in culture as the centuries-old ways of the great headhunting tribes, and as primitive in the shared celebration of the ceremonies that serve to bind the community together. I gather that MIT’s dean of admissions is trying to attract more “normal,” balanced people to MIT. The Steer Roast ritual demonstrates that, thank goodness, she is not altogether succeeding.

The mud wrestling began. The first two guys went at each other quite intensely. An older man-younger girl duo followed. They seemed a bit hesitant to really go on the attack. The next act was the most intense. Three meaty-sized women took to the ring. The steer would not be roasted to tender devouring-perfection for many hours yet, but the savage urges in the crowd were satisfied by the ensuing writhing, flailing, throbbing mass of mud-caked female flesh.

Steer Roast and Handel’s Theodora: Christians Thrown to the Lions

I noted my price for ringside admission: great splotches of mud on my clothes and camera. I ran home to throw the clothes in detergent, change, and head for Theodora. It was uncanny to hear Handel’s oratorio having just witnessed that the sorts of ritual drives that push forward its action are still very much alive. Theodora is a Christian who sticks to her faith in the face of pressure to submit to Roman pagan ritual and, as punishment, is forced into prostitution and ultimately is martyred. To Christian eyes, the Roman behavior is barbaric but, to the Romans, their ways were as normal and required as the Senior House celebration of Sport Death is, and anyone failing to conform would be a deviant and to be banished from society.

Handel’s composition is extraordinary because its musical ideas are on an intensely personal level, painting fantastic pictures of the inner torments and struggles of the protagonists. Virtue, pain, guilt (the Roman officer Septimus is quite unsure of the merit of the duties he must perform) all come alive in music of a psychological power only exceeded by Handel in his final oratorio, Jephtha, written as Handel’s eyesight failed.

Boston Baroque is one of Boston’s treasures, an ensemble that has done a great deal to find new insight in their period instrument performances of the baroque repertoire. Some of their recordings are exemplary and unbettered by any competition. The ensemble has just returned from a triumphant tour to Poland. Yet, too often all is not quite well when they perform at home. Much of the music-making Friday night was of the highest caliber -- string playing was frequently exhilarating, conveying in its clarity the descriptive detail Handel uses to tell us so much about the feelings in the protagonists’ hearts. Yet, all but one of the soloists sang poorly. There was no appreciation for the beauty or meaning of the words they were singing or of the necessary connection between those words and the revelations of the psyche to be found in Handel’s wondrous music. Countertenor David Walker was, ironically, the one soloist to show distinction, given the announcement at the opening of the evening that he was suffering from a respiratory infection.

Walker sang the part of Didimus, a Roman officer converted to Christianity by Theodora, and in love with her, with profundity and clear and accurate singing that conveyed the many levels of religious conviction and emotional suffering that are part and parcel of this complex character. The aria “The raptur’d soul defies the sword,” for example, was sung with heartfelt eloquence as well as made the more beautiful by hearing the rapture of its title illustrated by the violins.

Alas, Sharon Baker, in the title role of Theodora, was utterly boring. She never discovered Handel’s poetry of the soul, never identified with the tragedy of the character whose story she was telling, never delivered the words with anything more than a manner that was at best bland and for the most part empty.

Glenn Siebert, as Septimus, was no better. In fact, much of what he had to offer was plain vulgar and missed entirely the subtleties that make the role of Septimus so interesting. Mary Phillips portrayed an affected rather than affecting Irene, Theodora’s friend. While Michael Dean, as Valens, President of Antioch, had his moments of power, he also lapsed into colorless singing for too much of his performance. And as for the Boston Baroque chorus, they did have passages of splendor but lacked precision for too much of the time. A shame.

Annual Harvard Fair a World Away from Senior House -- Or Not?

The scene in Harvard’s Adolphus Busch Hall for the start of one of the many events in Saturday’s Performance Fair could not have been more different from the one at Senior House. Assembled were rows of eager, innocent-faced and doubtless clean-living Harvard choristers in robes of black and red. These souls would not have passed the Steer Roast ID check -- probably just as well given what happens should trespassers from Harvard be found “within our sacred walls ... ”

I have been coming to hear the Harvard Morning Choir, now renamed the Choral Fellows of the Harvard University Choir, for many years, and this year as always they were a highlight, providing singing of a depth simply unavailable from any other choral force in the Boston area. The choristers lingered on the message of their every word, their intense coloration and rich harmonies conveying sadness and joy with startling directness. After a jolly “Now is the Month of Maying,” (Thomas Morley) and a piece by Orlando di Lasso full of the beauty of polyphonic blending, the Fellows performed Seven Motets for the Church Year by Ned Rorem. The pieces have great variety, and the Fellows brought illumination to each one, never failing to project -- even in their deepest moments -- a message of hope. This concert, like all others during the afternoon was brief, but surely made for one of the most life-affirming 20 minutes to be found in New England.

I stayed in Adolphus Busch Hall for the Chamber Singers of the Harvard Collegium Musicum, who were very good, although not quite able to match the transcendent spirit of the Choral Fellows. Then, next door in Sanders Theater, T.H.U.D. (The Harvard University Drummers) provided a wonderfully creative virtuoso entertainment involving not only conventional percussion but cans, brooms, and trash cans. What made the event a huge success was its vital musicality as well as cleverness.

Over to the tiny Holden Chapel tucked away in Harvard Yard to hear Harvard sophomore Brad Balliett play a transcribed Bach solo cello suite on bassoon. His playing was superb, but the sound was invariably on the thick side; a modern bassoon does not sound like a cello of Bach’s time. On the other hand, a modern cello doesn’t sound like a period cello either -- both early wind and string instruments projected sound with greater clarity. After the concert, I asked Balliett if he had considered playing the piece on an early instrument, and he said it would be virtually impossible. He’s good enough that he should take up the challenge.

I ran over to the Harvard Science Center for 20 minutes of traditional music from various countries, then back to Holden Chapel for an eleven-piece flute ensemble. To make eleven flutes sound harmonious is a tough task, but it has to be accomplished to perfection to avoid the impression of dissonance. This group did not quite make it, despite passages of impressive bravura.

The afternoon’s only disappointment, Thirteen, performed in Memorial Church. This bunch of boorish spoiled kids were supposedly putting on a show of “improvised interdisciplinary performance art,” but they came across as witless as well as offensive. Their act was unbearably slow, and when they could come up with nothing better, they chose to desecrate the atmosphere of the church with speculation on whether “first-time priests ever get so nervous that they throw up” during a sermon, and requests for directions to the mens’ room. Pure trash.

I finished the afternoon hearing Harvard’s Din and Tonics, a male a capella group, in Harvard Yard in front of the John Harvard statue. Their performance was slick, although every year they seem to perform the same numbers such as their McDonalds take off “She is an angel in a polyester uniform,” and the Tom Lehrer transformation of “He is the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” laying out the table of elements.

“One half practices for several hours a day; the other half hasn’t touched their instrument in years,” announced Channing Yu in the courtyard of Lowell House, a Harvard residence the next day at 3 p.m. But it wasn’t unprepared instrumentalists that led to the failure of the performance of the 1812 Overture conducted by Yu to reach a climax when the firebrand used to explode gas-filled balloons was accidentally extinguished as the overture came to a close. The 1812 is an annual tradition at Lowell House, and with just an hour’s rehearsal and kazoos to replace absent instrumental voices, it was none too harmonious this year, at least on the first run. The lapse from the pyrotechnics department was perhaps merciful, however, because it prompted Yu to give the final measures a second attempt, and the result really was impressive, especially augmented by the sounding of Lowell’s massive Russian bells as well as the balloon effects.

What would the headhunters make of this event? Would they not find the strange sounds culminating in explosive noises puzzling? What strange tribe finds joy in this display? Was the setting of flame to balloons any less bizarre than the launching of Senior House’s flaming toilet roll? Not really. Both were events that established membership in a community, that promoted a sense of joy as well as belonging.

Certain MIT administrators seem intent on eliminating the spirit of IHTFP embodied in Steer Roast. What they fail to understand is that the IHTFP spirit conveys complex emotions. Such acts, which might appear on the surface to indicate only alientation, provide both a basis for enduring the struggles that MIT often presents and a focus of shared experience and togetherness. As was clear from the smiles at the Senior House Steer Roast invocation for MIT to burn as the Institute’s emblem disappeared in flames, this was an expression not only of frustration but also pride in the place, and even ill-concealed affection for it.