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A Rhapsody of Winds

Wind Ensemble Excels In Classical Masterpieces

By Bogdan Fedeles

Staff Writer

MIT Wind Ensemble Fred Harris, conductor

Jonathan Lee, piano

Kresge Auditorium

May 10, 8 p.m.

Saturday night was the MIT Wind Ensemble’s turn to gather classical music enthusiasts for an unusual concert featuring 20th and 21st century music. The novelty of some of the pieces presented -- Brian Robison’s Congress of the Insomniacs (2003), Michael Gandolfi’s Vientos y Tangos (2002) and Jason Pelc’s ’06 Rondo (2001) -- was balanced by some well-established masterpieces -- R.R.Bennett’s Symphonic Songs (1957) and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924). Although the level of the performances didn’t soar, the concert was enjoyable and enthusiastically received by the audience.

When it comes to completely novel music, I try to find meaning before I judge the originality of approach. Every musical piece should at least justify itself when performed. Masterpieces do even more, they establish new meanings. But in any event, music shouldn’t be just a pure exercise of whim, trying to find an original way of expression just because it hasn’t been found yet. I think that contemporary music should justify better its boisterous adventures before raising any claims beyond the status of etude or exercise. At least, this was my impression of the world premiere presented by MITWE last Saturday, Brian Robison’s The Congress of the Insomniacs.

According to the scarce liner notes, the piece is rather complex. It features eight soloists vaguely resembling a Baroque concerto grosso, but draws its musical substance from minimalism, jazz, and every other kind of music in between and too hard to classify. The piece starts with an ephemeral intro, sustained in the whole ensemble, to which the soloists add random notes here and there. An episode follows in which the soloists are featured alone, in some sort of recitative initiated by the flute. After some louder whirl in the tutti, a similar episode features the vibraphone and marimba and after some more agitation ends with a vibraphone hit. The piece certainly suggests the randomness of insomniacs wandering and stumbling around, but comes short of coming together as a beautiful musical experience in the more familiar sense. MITWE did a decent job in performing this complicated piece, although it did look like they were not completely comfortable with it.

Michael Gandolfi’s piece, Vientos y Tangos (Winds and Tangos) sounds more approachable, partly due to his stated inspiration source: the classical tango. The piece flows better, but fails to be completely fulfilling because of its unclear transitions and anti-climactic ending. MITWE played this piece more vigorously, with ensemble cohesion and more exact phrasing. The dynamic contrasts between various tango episodes were highlighted and the rhythmic drive was well sustained. Percussion surprises were delightful and naturally integrated, including unusual devices such as hand clapping and foot tapping. Aside from its unconvincing ending, the piece was enjoyable and well performed.

A surprise in the program was Jason Pelc’s piece, Rondo for clarinet quintet. The piece is beautifully tonal, simplistic, and concise, yet it lacks any vital force. The romantic theme is melodious but fails to become fascinating because of its conventional treatment. This is a Rondo and we get to hear the theme three times; it sounds the same every time. The two episodes are more interesting, but not without problems. The first one lingers too long near the home key. The second features an overly abrupt contrast and, while its agitated character is convincing, sounds like a different piece. This is not to say that Rondo is a bad piece. On the contrary, the piece is cute and correctly written, a perfect example of an A+ final project Harmony & Counterpoint. The performance it received was good, but it could have been better. The clarinet quintet expressed the romanticism of the piece well, with good dynamics and phrasing, but fell a bit short of the ensemble sound and cohesion.

The new music wasn’t really the high point of the evening. It is still the established masterpieces that make us appreciate the absolute beauty of classical music. The evening opened with Robert Russell Bennett’s Symphonic Songs (1957), a suite of dances and songs that show the composer’s predilection for melody and the Broadway sound. The first movement, “Serenade,” opened with jazzy chords and rhythms. It was lively but lacked cohesion. The softer middle section sounded better, well prompting the vibrant, concise ending. The dreaming “Spiritual” was well interpreted -- warm and heartfelt -- with good dynamics. Finally, “Celebration” came out exuberant, with good rhythmic drive and savory, jazzy effects in the brass. Overall, Bennett’s piece was well played and thus uplifting and enjoyable.

The end of the program featured the most-awaited Rhapsody in Blue, featuring Jonathan Lee G as piano soloist, and a few other non-wind instruments such as violins and string bass. The clarinet opening sequence was handled well, but a bit shy and without vigor. The tutti’s initially sounded calculated and a bit heavy but eventually fell into place. Lee offered a great performance of the difficult piano part of the rhapsody. His playing was witty, refined, and lively, but oversaturated with head shakes, especially in the slow, lyrical parts. Finally, the piano cadenza near the end of the piece highlighted Lee’s accurate technique and virtuosity, eventually rendering the whole performance brilliant and fulfilling. The intense ovations and applause that followed were just a justification for that.

And now, quo vadis? Modern music has certainly some very good leads to follow and young talented people to struggle with them. MIT Wind Ensemble has a great potential to deliver good music, old and new, in remarkable performances.