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Sparkling Stravinsky, Banal Beethoven

Anzolini’s Return to MITSO Marked by More of the Same

By Bogdan Fedeles

staff writer

MIT Symphony Orchestra

Dante Anzolini, conductor

Kresge Auditorium

Oct. 24, 8 p.m.

Why is it so often the case that the MIT Symphony Orchestra delivers notable performances of 20th century masterpieces, and yet falls short in convincingly performing classical and romantic symphonic works? Great performances of classical works during the past centuries have set very high standards in listeners’ ears, whereas the more modern works are not as well-known and understood. It has been suggested that while the modern works are very rigorously scored, with an abundance of interpretation details, the classics relied more on the performers’ understanding and interpretation of the music, and their notation is scarcer in nitty-gritty indications.

Whatever the reason, last Friday’s performance followed the same trend, with MITSO, conducted by Dante Anzolini, delivering an intense Rite of Spring, alongside a contrived, lackluster rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral.”

Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring) played a pivotal role in the development of 20th century classical music. The force of this music transcends its time and never fails to excite and inspire. Perhaps this is why MITSO has developed a rather intimate relationship with this piece; Friday’s performance was the second time they have played it in the last three years. Compared with last time, Rite has become a tad more primitive, more intense and probably much louder.

The performance was great because at the heart of Stravinsky’s music lies its fabulously driven, unpredictable rhythm. And rhythm, by its quantitative nature, must be appealing to the engineering-inclined minds and hearts of MIT students, much more so than intonation or affection.

In the very beginning of the piece, the whimsical pipers’ dance rendered by the winds sounded hesitant. The piece really started to come together around the unpredictably-accented polychords. Later on, the performance became very intense and descriptive, offering true glimpses from Stravinsky’s world of rituals.

The procession of the wise old men and the Kiss of the Earth passages sounded striking, while the mysterious, night games of the virgins came out fantastic and mesmerizing. The rhythmically difficult ending of the piece flowed nicely and fervently, showing one more time MITSO’s strength in dealing with hard pieces of this nature. The numbing effect of the end was especially good; the shocked audience was barely composed enough to start clapping.

The concert featured only one other piece in its second half, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, as the other announced piece (Giovanni D’Aquila’s Through the Mines of Moria) was postponed for the next concert. The Pastoral’s performance should have evoked those “happy and grateful feelings towards nature” that Beethoven so dearly intended to capture, but instead MITSO sketched what looked more like a cartoon of the countryside, unconvincing at best.

The first movement was probably the best, largely due to an enthusiastic wind section. However, a number of elements such as the violin section, failing repeatedly to hold notes in unison, detracted from the overall impression, giving that good-but-not-great feeling. Anzolini’s efforts in tuning after each movement only slightly ameliorated the overall situation. In the second movement, “Scene at the Brook,” things got a lot worse. First of all, it was blindingly fast -- the brook was more like muddy rapids, often splashing. The middle section regained some clarity but recapitulation returned to the previous muddier state. The birds’ song episode was somewhat delightful, albeit too shy and tense.

The third movement brought some spark to the whole piece, with some very playful oboe episodes, joined by good clarinet and horn solos. The string section again lacked definition and the whole “happy gathering of country folk” came out lackadaisical, rather than exuberant. After that, even the storm didn’t elicit that much enthusiasm, sounding rather calculated and tame.

The dynamics felt way too low. Here, the strings made up for some of their previous sins, but the conciseness of the movement didn’t allow the good trend to prevail. Finally, reaching the sublime Shepherd’s song, most of the good things fell apart, and the last movement came out dull and lifeless.

Imprecise playing and ensemble work made the finale hesitant and unenthusiastic, and the audience responded accordingly, with a rather tepid and brief round of applause.

All in all, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony didn’t sound bad, but it lacked that enthusiasm and energy needed for a great performance. And while one could easily recognize the notes of the piece, Beethoven’s aspirations towards the simple joys of nature that are cast here seemed out of reach.