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Concert Review: Large Audience Attends Family Weekend Concert

‘Lincoln Portrait’ Featuring President Hockfield and Festival Jazz Ensemble Highlight the Evening

By Jacqueline O’Connor

MIT Annual Family Weekend Concert

MIT Wind Ensemble and
Festival Jazz Ensemble

Frederick Harris Jr., music director

Denneth Amis, assistant conductor

President Susan Hockfield, narrator

Dr. Thomas N. Byrne, narrator

Oct. 14, 2005, 8 p.m.

Kresge Auditorium, MIT

Despite the monsoon conditions outside, Kresge Auditorium was once again filled with adoring parents and enthusiastic fans for the Annual Family Weekend Concert, featuring the MIT Wind Ensemble and Festival Jazz Ensemble. The concert was split by an intermission, with each group playing five selections. This concert was an extra-special event due to a guest appearance by President Susan Hockfield and her husband Dr. Thomas N. Byrne, visiting clinical professor of neurology at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. President Hockfield summed up the spirit of the night before the performance of Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” when she said, “They play like angels, and they do differential equations too.”

“Lincoln Portrait” was definitely the high point of the wind ensemble performance. The first four selections on the Wind Ensemble program were played musically, though at times were out of tune. The piece “Down a Country Lane,” by Vincent Persichetti, was especially interesting as it came in two parts: first a version for solo piano, played by Daniel Steele ’06, and then a version for full ensemble. Steele’s performance was lovely and captured the simplicity of the folk-like ballad. The Wind Ensemble was able to capture the same phrasings and character that Steele’s performance offered and made for a pleasant listening experience.

After a shaky “Fanfare and Fugue,” a piece written by MIT Professor Peter Child for the inauguration of President Susan Hockfield, the ensemble was joined by President Hockfield and Dr. Byrne for a performance of Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.”

This work, in true Copland style, is an American piece to the core. The melodies echo those of traditional American folk music and rhythms. After the stately march-line section that opens the piece, a more lyrical tune comes in as the narrator, first Hockfield, tells of Lincoln’s life and presidency. The inspirational music is complemented by a variety of quotes from Lincoln’s speeches to Congress, at the battlefield at Gettysburg, and at other important moments in American history. “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.” The words came across powerfully, in no small part due to the excellent narrations by Hockfield and Byrne.

After some technical difficulties at the beginning of the second half, the Festival Jazz Ensemble picked up the pace of the concert and delivered a wonderful performance with works from Thelonious Monk, Bob Mintzer, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker, among many other legends. It is obvious that Director Fred Harris is not only proud of this ensemble but also loves being a part of it, as witnessed not only by his enthusiasm on stage but by the caliber of the performance. The ensemble is made up of approximately 16 students whose enthusiasm and sheer talent make every performance of the Festival Jazz Ensemble a great one.

The highlight of the second half was a piece called “Tribute,” written by Bob Mintzer in 1984 in honor of the legendary Count Basie, who died that year. Count Basie and his jazz orchestra helped to define an era of great modern-day jazz. The Festival Jazz Ensemble captured the essence of a large jazz orchestra, and the soloists added flair and virtuosity to the performance. Towards the end of the piece, the band did a tribute of their own to the many struggling jazz musicians in New Orleans trying to get a foothold after Hurricane Katrina.

One other piece on their program must be mentioned: Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington’s “Isfahan,” a movement from “The Far East Suite,” written after a visit to the region in 1963. Ellington said of Isfahan that it was “a city where everything is poetry.” The piece really reflects this mood, especially in the silky solo saxophone part played by Reid Van Lehn ’09. Besides the fantastic group performance, there were many memorable solos. Chris Kottke G on trumpet provided many solos throughout the night and proved himself to be an amazing jazz musician. His playing was clear and his ad libs were fun and interesting. Finally, bassist Jason Atkins stole the show in his opening of “Moose the Mooche,” a Charlie Parker tune. He started the piece with a slower, jazzy baseline, and before you knew it broke out the funk and led the band into a wonderful rendition of this 1920s throwback.

Harris and his supporting conductors and staff did an excellent job in preparing for this concert. For such a large group, the Wind Ensemble played extremely musically, and the Festival Jazz Ensemble was as excellent as always. Catch them both at their winter performances at the end of term.