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Concert Review: MITSO Shows Promise in Season Opener

Players Demonstrate Boldness With Hanson...s ...Symphony No. 2...

By Bogdan Fedeles

MITSO Fall Concert

Kresge Auditorium

Friday, Oct. 20, 2006, 8 p.m.

A large crowd of classical music enthusiasts gathered last Friday in MIT’s Kresge auditorium to give a warm welcome at the season opening concert of the MIT Symphony Orchestra. This concert was also special since it was the first under the leadership of conductor Paul M. Biss, professor of music at the Indiana University School of Music, who will be conducting MITSO this academic year. Although a large audience attended, including many outside MIT, there was an unexpected scarcity of faculty from our own music department.

Given that the program featured composers who revel in big orchestral sonorities (Wagner, Hanson, Dvorak), the concert consisted mainly of loud music that animated and satisfied the audience. However, the concert fell a little short on the expressive side, with several of the passages sounding rough and hectic at times. Nevertheless, the energy and exuberance of the players, the hard work of the conductor, and the ebullience of the music combined to produce a solid performance of a challenging program.

The concert opened with Wagner’s Prelude from the opera “The Mastersingers of Nuremberg,” a staple of the orchestral repertoire. This well-known piece is often chosen by many orchestras as a season opener, given its majestic fanfare and grand orchestral sound. To say this is a loud piece is an understatement. All the instruments play almost all the time and more than half of the score is marked fortissimo (as loud as possible). The few more lyrical and softer secondary themes appear only briefly and are very soon blasted by the whole orchestra in an all-encompassing counterpoint, which despite its imaginative inner workings, is just overpowering. Evidently, performing such a piece well is quite a challenge, but MITSO rose to it and delivered a very solid performance. Most of Wagner’s loud music is technically difficult and quite exhausting for the performers — yet MITSO showed a remarkable aplomb and performed this demanding piece effortlessly. Furthermore, the brilliant sonority of the effervescent ending was particularly enjoyable.

The surprise of the concert was Howard Hanson’s “Symphony No. 2, Op. 30 ‘Romantic’,” a lesser known work written for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930. However, its claim to fame came in 1979 when the second movement was incorporated into the soundtrack of the famous sci-fi thriller, Alien. Hanson’s soothing music provided a stark contrast and welcome relief to the intensely violent drama of the movie. Perhaps this is the reason why “Symphony No. 2” is Hanson’s best known and most frequently played work. Another reason might be that while Hanson was a prominent American composer, this piece pays tribute to Hanson’s Scandinavian heritage, very often resembling the symphonic music of Jean Sibelius — the Finnish composer and one of the 20th century’s great masters of the form.

From the very beginning, Hanson’s “Symphony” sounds complicated with multiple tempo changes; it’s quite a demanding piece for any orchestra. The melodious themes and expansive sonorities require careful balancing between various sections of the orchestra. MITSO’s take on the piece was very bold with a youthful attitude that carried most of the piece. The slow movement, Andante contenerezza, was truly remarkable, with the sweet meandering melody flowing easily from the strings to the winds, while the brass boldly yet softly shaped the harmonic color. The brass, however, did not fare as well in the finale, where they seemed a little overwhelmed by the increasingly loud and fast passage of the work. Nevertheless, the last movement featured a number of very delightful episodes reminiscent of film music, which were played very well with both intensity and expressiveness.

After the intermission, Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 8” completed the program. One of Dvorak’s most exuberant works, the Eighth Symphony was completed very quickly in 1889 in a span of only a few short months in 1889, and is heavily imbued with Czech folk song inspiration. The initial simplicity of the themes is deceptive as they are extensively developed later. The romantic character of the piece is accentuated by the freer use of form, especially in the last movement. MITSO certainly had a good time performing this piece, delivering a homogenous and lively rendition, plagued only occasionally by shaky loud moments or hesitant phrase beginnings. In those moments, it seemed that despite conductor Biss’ ample and intent conducting motions, the connection between the orchestra and its conductor was somewhat weak, but fortunately only very briefly. Luckily, the sparkling moments in this piece were numerous. Given Dvorak’s democratic orchestrating style, almost every section and instrument in the orchestra has one or two moments of glory. Particularly notable were the cello section, which carried tune after tune with elegance and sensitivity; the flutes with a sparkling solo tune in the first movement; the mighty trumpets and the whole brass section who worked very hard through the whole concert. The whole strings section also shined with its vibrant yet transparent sound that sustained most of the music, led by concertmaster Albert J. Chow ’08, who aptly delivered a very convincing solo in the midst of the bittersweet Adagio.

Friday’s concert was a success, but most importantly a good start to the academic year. As the orchestra and its new conductor become more accustomed to each other, we can only expect bigger and better (hopefully not louder) performances in the near future.