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MITSO Finishes Year With Noble Mahler’s Ninth

Long Concert Weighed Down by Dull Pieces Before Intermission

By Jeremy Baskin

MIT Symphony Orchestra

Dante Anzolini, conductor

Arshan J. Gailus ’06, tenor saxophone

Kresge Auditorium

May 7, 8 p.m.

Sometimes good things have to come to an end, even if they were too long to start out with. On Friday night, the MIT Symphony Orchestra presented a program whose second half alone was ninety minutes, featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. The first half consisted of a tenor saxophone concerto by Villa-Lobos and a world premiere by Mary C. Wright.

The last of Mahler’s monumental symphonies, the ninth is subdued, especially by Mahlerian standards. The first and last movements, each about a half-hour long, are marked “Andante comodo” and “Adagio” -- essentially slow and slower -- and the middle two movements, though more brisk, are only slightly shorter. In sum, it is a piece, as they say, of epic proportions, even for a composer like Mahler.

The orchestra, bolstered by alums and hired extras in certain key sections, was up to the task. Strings sang, trumpets and horns blared, and woodwinds poked their heads through. Anzolini did a good job keeping his forces on the same page, and except for a few runaway string section episodes, the orchestra played together. Particularly noteworthy were the singing trumpet of Rahul B. Sarathy ’03 and the brilliant flute playing of Ole M. Nielsen G.

There is something about ninth symphonies, perhaps it is supernatural, that makes them supremely difficult. Maybe it’s because so many great composers died before completing a tenth -- Beethoven, Schubert, and Mahler himself -- or maybe it’s just because they put so much of their last gasps of life into them. Beethoven and Schubert took the heroic ending route, while Mahler took the quiet, searching ending approach.

Anzolini’s players may not have displayed the musical subtlety required to convey 90 minutes of late Mahler to an MIT audience. But can they be blamed? This kind of music took a lifetime for Mahler to compose, so to be fully understood and internalized, one must look beyond the notes and into the soul of the composer. So who could blame an orchestra of 20-year-olds if the performance was mostly correct but emotionally a bit incoherent? Certainly not me. At least they were taking a good stab at great music -- after the intermission, at least.

The first half of the concert, however, was another story: two bland, forgettable pieces. The program began with the world premiere of “Lux Domesticus,” a thankfully short but nonetheless uninteresting orchestral vignette by Mary C. Wright. The piece described in musical terms the mundane realities of life -- a vacuum cleaner was even on stage. But its conception and performance did not live up to the lofty program notes, a manifesto which read as follows:

“To obtain domestic discipline, one must uphold a daily rigor. Start a pace (almost militant, if necessary) with the intent of reaching a steady momentum. Distractions will occur, but don’t fret -- keep the goal in sight. Hold off vacuuming until the end for this is the joyous moment or “aurora vacuualis,” the revelation of a universal shag carpet truth and order.”

I don’t think very many people in the audience experienced any revelations due to Wright’s music, though I did vacuum my room after the concert, so maybe the piece wasn’t a total waste.

The other piece on the first half was “Fantasia,” for tenor saxophone and orchestra, by Heitor Villa-Lobos, a 20th-century Brazilian composer. According to the program notes, this piece was Op. 630, which means that Villa-Lobos had plenty of other opportunities to demonstrate his compositional talents.

It doesn’t seem, however, that Villa-Lobos actually got dressed and went into the office the day he wrote this piece. It has few memorable melodies and is almost completely devoid of any interesting rhythms or harmonies that imbue his good works.

That said, soloist Arshan J. Gailus ’06, co-winner of last year’s concerto competition, played wonderfully. His tenor saxophone was surprisingly -- and pleasantly -- underwhelming. Gailus explored the lyrical reaches of the instrument and at the same time was up to the task during the technically challenging parts of the piece.

It just troubles me to sit in the audience and listen to a third-rate saxophone concerto when it could instead be a great piano or violin concerto. As I prepare to leave this noble institution of higher learning after four years, it is barely two months before my graduation that the MIT concerto competition has chosen its first pianist, Percy S. Liang G, among about a half-dozen winners in the last four years.

To think I have been deprived of MITSO performances of some of my favorite piano concertos by undoubtedly very accomplished student soloists so I could hear such uninspired pieces as this Villa-Lobos Fantasia and the Glazunov Violin Concerto, just to name two, well, it just makes me a little red in the face.

But those issues are for another day. Now, the players of MITSO will take the summer off knowing that there is no task too challenging for them; if they can successfully tackle a difficult masterpiece like Mahler’s Ninth, then they will no doubt succeed at whatever demanding (and rewarding) repertoire that Anzolini throws their way next year.