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A Splendid Season Finale

David Alan Miller Brings Better Brahms to MITSO

By Bogdan Fedeles

Staff Writer

MIT Symphony Orchestra

David Alan Miller, guest conductor

Judith Gordon, piano

Kresge Auditorium

May 9, 8 p.m.

Guest conductor David Alan Miller brought a new face and look to the MIT Symphony Orchestra for its final concert of the season on Friday. Sporting a contemporary shirt, Miller arranged the orchestra in traditional style, with the few cellists left in MITSO buried where the second violins sit and the second violins on the “cello side” of the stage.

The alternate arrangement of the orchestra offers better balance and projection opportunities for winds and brass. Together with Miller’s inspired conducting, the arrangement of musicians contributed significantly to the high quality of the performances.

The concert opened with Haydn’s Symphony No.44 in E minor, subtitled “Trauer” (Mourning), a piece of remarkable directness and force of expression. The faster movements came out clean, convincing and intense, sporting careful intonation in all registers, along with good rhythmic drive and dynamics. The orchestra captured the rage phase of mourning, but lost some of the momentum when conveying the resignation parts, depicted in the slower movements. Here, the sound lost intensity and clarity, especially in the string sections. The hypnotic canon of the menuetto was often drifting, while the sweetness of the parallel thirds and sixths in the Adagio was embittered by intonation issues. Overall, however, Haydn’s Symphony came out as a solid performance. However, this was not done without reinforcement of Institute Professor John H. Harbison’s commentary in the last concert’s program notes, which asserted that Haydn’s music is especially challenging to play well.

The next piece, Harbison’s “Piano Concerto,” was the heart of the whole performance. Written in 1978, this work is beautiful example of good contemporary classical music. Perhaps because the concerto was “older than most of the people on stage,” as Harbison put it, the piece was performed with an intense feeling of familiarity and devotion. The featured soloist, Judith Gordon, a Boston-area musician, displayed both a fascinating control of the piano and a sense of familiarity with Harbison’s music as well. Her interpretation was precise, subtle, and intense, highlighting the unpredictable and unsettling nature of Harbison’s musical language.

Generally, the balance between the soloist and orchestra was very good, allowing a natural change of focus from the piano’s winding melodic episodes to the brass-heavy orchestral tuttis. Gordon handled the cadenza superbly, providing an accurate touch and expressive attitude, but he gestured excessively, waving his hands, mock conducting and foot tapping in a way that proved to be distracting and way too unconventional.

The second and final movement of the concerto features a fresco of liveliness to oppose the unsettling, improvisational nature of the first movement. The three distinct episodes are titled “March,” “Song,” and “Dance,” according to the program notes. The high-point of the whole movement was reached at the end of the song -- a transcendent event -- where the piano and the harp engage in a short pianissimo duet. Harbison’s marvelous demonstration that the climax of the piece can also be its softest moment is overwhelming and unforgettable.

The second half of the concert revisited Brahms, who might have been demanding justice after the pale performance he received in the last MITSO concert. It happened that this time MITSO got it right. Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 had a memorable performance, full of the pathos, intensity and romantism required by Brahms’ works.

Conductor Miller had already prepared a few surprises. First of all, the tempo of the introduction, un poco sostenuto, was interpreted with an emphasis on the un poco part; though the tempo was much faster than usual, in some odd way it worked, building a superb momentum from which the Allegro flowed naturally. The melody of the slow movement came out somewhat sweetly and heartfelt, but not quite heart-wrenchingly, mainly because of the incongruous string section. Yet, the intention of the music came out clearly, aided in part by fantastic wind solos.

The pastoral third movement sounded more involved and more filling, a very good setup for the overwhelming finale. Here, the apogee of the symphony received a brilliant performance, with well-directed fervency and tension.

The horn calls in particular sounded decisive and majestic; in fact, the whole brass section delivered a wonderful performance. Miller’s intention to probe the limits of the allegro non troppo was evident, yet the performance -- while fast -- didn’t sound rushed. In an attempt to rejuvenate the long and anticlimactic coda, Miller pressed the tempo in the end, getting too loud too quickly. Nevertheless, this novel approach is not without rewards, the end result being brilliant.

Given the ascending curve it followed during this year, we can hopefully expect even better performances from MITSO next year.