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Harvard Ensemble Excels in Season Opener

Brilliant Performances in Chopin Piano Concerto, Mozart Symphony

By Brad Balliett

Harvard Bach Society Orchestra

Paine Hall, Harvard University

Oct. 31, 8 p.m.

Friday night’s inaugural concert of Harvard University’s self-proclaimed “premier chamber orchestra” was a night of ups and downs. The Bach Society Orchestra, Harvard’s oldest student-conducted orchestra, has a long list of illustrious alumni, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, composer John Adams, and MIT Institute Professor John H. Harbison.

Added to that list this year is senior Alex Misono, a former assistant conductor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. Misono’s biography included his mission statement for the orchestra, which outlined plans to “revitalize allegiance to the traditional form while incorporating new music program in an effort to help cultivate a healthy atmosphere for musical performance at Harvard.”

If nothing else, Misono managed to revitalize allegiance to the orchestra itself: the orchestra roster included some of Harvard’s top undergraduate performers and there was a general spirit of ensemble pride, something noticeably lacking in the past few years.

Misono has much strength as a conductor, showing clarity and command admirable for an undergraduate, especially considering the challenging music presented. One developed the impression that the orchestra played as well as it did mostly through his strong leadership and understanding of the music. However, the taxingly long program, both for performers and listeners, which included a contemporary piece, a concerto, and two symphonies, left some works relatively unpolished. Had the program dispensed with one of the symphonies, Misono would have had time to put the finishing touches on the other pieces and display his strengths more fully.

The choice of an opening piece for the orchestra’s season was wisely chosen: Schnittke’s Moz-Art a la Haydn, a tongue-in-cheek piece for strings that combines various Mozart and Haydn motives, displayed Misono’s dedication to performing new music, and showed some of the orchestra’s strongest string players through various solos. The dramatic lighting, which faded up and down at the beginning and end of the piece, was effective (especially for a concert on Halloween). Solos by concertmaster Ian Goh and Lisa Park were played with exactly the amount of gusto necessary to make the piece succeed.

The highlight of the evening was the piano work of Yei-Fei Chuang, a noted Boston-based soloist and frequent duo-partner with Harvard professor Robert Levin. Originally scheduled to play Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 for Piano in G Major, the orchestra needed to scramble to prepare the accompaniment for Chopin’s Concerto No. 2, but pulled off a sensitive and flexible performance. Chaung’s playing, which ranged from powerful pyrotechnics to delicate whispers, was executed with the utmost ease throughout, and drew an immediate ovation from the capacity house.

Of the two symphonies performed, Haydn’s 88th (subtitled “Letter V,” which the notes unfortunately neglected to explain) and Mozart’s 35th, the Mozart performance was superior in almost every way. Had Misono nixed the Haydn and concentrated on the Mozart, the program would have been much tighter and more concise, and given the Harvard community a strong first impression of this year’s Bach Society Orchestra.

Oboist Toni Marchioni, clarinetist Damian Blattler, and bassoonist David Richmond rose above the generally mediocre wind playing to deliver some fine solo lines, and Michelle Young played the cello solo in the slow movement of the Haydn beautifully. The finale of the Mozart was possibly the most exciting portion of the evening, when the string section banded together to conquer the demanding virtuoso writing. Particular accolades are in order for my brother, Doug Balliett, who comes from a distinguished musical family, who made the exceptionally difficult double bass part look like child’s play.

The orchestra displayed many strengths in their first concert, especially Misono, whose musical intentions were always clear and came across to the audience well. Areas for improvement are centered around issues of control and ensemble, especially in the strings, but the promising start shown in this concert predicts many potentially spectacular concerts in the future.