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classical review: Happy Birthday, Composers! MITSO Honors Classical and Contemporary Musical Milestones

By Tony Hwang

MIT Symphony Orchestra

Dante Anzolini, director

Kresge Auditorium

March 17, 8 p.m.

Before entering Kresge Auditorium, I noticed that the score of “Happy Birthday” was printed on the cover of the concert program. Indeed, the evening’s program was chosen to celebrate anniversaries of composer birthdays premieres. Unlike the spirit of the program, however, the content of the pieces was often shrill or dark and eerie, perhaps causing much of the audience to be taken aback.

The concert opened with Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Prelude and Scherzo, Op. 11.” This strings-only piece was selected for the program because this year marks the 100th birthday of Shostakovich. He wrote it during his time at the Conservatory of Petrograd, and it was later accepted for performance by the Leningrad Philharmonic. MITSO’s string sections sported a new seating arrangement to accommodate the nature of the piece: the second violins faced the firsts across the stage, while the violas, celli, and basses shuffled spots.

Once everyone was settled, conductor Dante Anzolini raised his baton and the first slow, eerie notes drifted off the stage. The principal players of each section then proceeded to weave a thin web of chilling solos. It was slightly off-kilter, with noticeably different vibratos and articulations among players, but the unsettling effect was still captured well. Soon, the prelude developed into the fast-paced scherzo, with sharp spicatto and demonic energy. The string players struggled through technically challenging passages in extremely high registers of their instruments, resulting in lapses in intonation. Harmonies, however, would lock back together once the notes progressed back into more comfortable ranges. When the scherzo concluded on a unison note, the audience seemed unsure of what to make of the performance, but perhaps the takeaway message was unclear in the first place.

Much relief could be felt after the winds joined the stage and the bright opening chords of Mozart’s “Die Zauberfl te: Overture, K. 620” rang through the hall. It is Mozart’s 250th birthday this year, and it seemed fitting that the orchestra chose the overture from one of his most famous operas — “The Magic Flute.” MITSO was more at home with the familiar sounds of Mozart; their execution was precise. Dynamic contrasts were apparent, and proper stylistic playing created a cheerful mood. Upon modulation into minor, the brass sections did a praiseworthy job of matching chord pitches, while the woodwinds brought out their singing lines beautifully. The strings played with renewed energy and built toward a convincingly triumphant conclusion. The audience reaction was much stronger this time, as they were happy to support a recognizable piece.

Next was John Harbison’s “Darkbloom: Overture to an Imagined Opera,” premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra just one year ago. The overture tells the tale of the awkward interactions between male and female, described by Harbison as having a “tragic-comic spirit.” Harbison never finished the opera because he felt it was inappropriate to tackle taboo subject matter in an opera, but was happy to gather his early thoughts into “Darkbloom.” The piece opened with some interesting seven chord harmonies and quickly developed a jazzy feel. A lot of glissandi and syncopated rhythms furthered this effect, and MITSO did well to oblige. The piece, though, did not fit a particular jazz idiom, as there was always a little twist in the harmonization as well as particular emphasis on percussion hits that kept the beat. When the piece was finished, Harbison, who was in the audience, stood and received due gratitude for his work.

After the intermission, MITSO delivered an honest rendition of “Symphony No. 3” by the great American composer, Aaron Copland. The BSO also premiered this piece (albeit 60 years ago), and it was an interesting pick for the second half of the concert. The opening movement, Molto Allegro, had a cinematic feel, characterized by open intervals and common musical turns that popular culture has become accustomed to hearing at the movies. MITSO had a powerful sound, making sharp contrasts when necessary and in general playing tighter as a group. The next movement, Allegro Molto, opened with yet another impressive fanfare from the brass and developed into a playful, rhythmic jaunt that occasionally lapsed into tranquility but never lost its overall pace. Interesting instrumentation, including ratchet, anvil, tubular bells, and celesta, was allowed to shine in this movement.

The final movements began with a soft, mysterious opening by the violins, but eventually became agitated. Although this feeling of edginess was supposed to be sustained, MITSO was unable to keep up the tension, and the audience was lulled until surprised by Copland’s insertion of his “Fanfare for the Common Man.” This popular melody has often been used in television and movies, and thus the listeners were very startled to hear it suddenly emerge from nowhere. From this point on, MITSO appropriately continued to increase the intensity of the symphony until the glorious finish.

Friday’s concert was truly a difficult undertaking for MITSO. The program they performed would be hard for any orchestra to execute well, and MITSO put forth an admirable effort. After observing their successful preparation for this demanding program, I am looking forward to seeing how they will deal with the challenges of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 7” at their next concert.