Friday, Mar. 16, 2007
During my time at MIT, I have learned that the best thing to do on a Friday night is to grab some friends and go to a MITSO concert, which is possible about twice a term. When I got to Kresge last Friday, I was delighted to see a large audience that apparently felt the same way despite the surprisingly inclement weather. Under the baton of conductor Paul M. Biss, MITSO again delivered an uplifting performance, featuring the all-time favorites Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suite" and Stravinsky's "Firebird." The program also included Beethoven's "Symphony No. 1" and Mozart's early masterpiece, the cantata "Exsultate, Jubilate", with soprano Elisabeth Hon G, winner of the MITSO concerto competition.
The concert was enjoyable throughout, but several moments were outright impressive. Among these, the cantata was the highlight of the evening. Hon, a PhD student in electrical engineering, enthralled the audience with her singing, showcasing not only a solid vocal technique, but also a uniquely sweet timbre. Her graceful, unassuming stage presence matched Mozart's playful music, written when the composer was only 16 years old. Also remarkable was Hon's expressivity, as she effortlessly conveyed the central emotion in the piece, which is exultation in divine communion, achieved through prayer and song.
Although an early composition, Mozart's "Exsultate Jubilate" is a notoriously difficult piece. Hon delivered it with a dexterity that demonstrated rigorous musical and vocal training, as well as ample performing experience. All the challenging elements, including trills, high notes and melismata (vocal runs) were rendered with utmost precision, to the great delight of the audience.
The piece requires only a small chamber orchestra for accompaniment, comprised of strings, oboes and horns. Although not in the spotlight, this reduced complement of MITSO confidently supported the soloist, highlighting Mozart's inventive figurations. The violas introducing the slow movement theme were especially expressive. Also noteworthy was the presence of the organ as a continuo in the recitatif section. Hearing the instrument adorning one of Kresge's balconies come to life while Hon's voice soared gracefully through the auditorium made for a mesmerizing moment.
If you missed Friday's concert, you will have another chance to enjoy Hon's vocal mastery, at her Emerson recital, Friday April 20, 5 p.m., in Killian Hall.
Stravinsky's "Firebird Suite," performed last, was also breathtaking. This time, the music required a large orchestra, including a great variety of percussion instruments. MITSO tackled Stravinsky's famous score with a youthful exuberance and energy, in the end delivering an engaging performance. The slow sections in the piece were the most expressive, due in great part to excellent playing in the winds section. The extended wind solos, often on simple Russian folk tunes, went straight to audience's heart. The faster sections, although imbued with good energy, tended to get a little hectic, though never out of control. Nevertheless, the most memorable section of the piece — the ending — was also the most exciting, being rendered with great enthusiasm and verve.
The first half of the concert featured Beethoven's "Symphony No.1" and Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suite No.1." Although solidly played, this half was clearly overshadowed by the charm and ebullience of the second half.
While Beethoven's first symphony is often considered a lesser work, this performance highlighted its intricacies and novel ideas. The majestic character of the introduction and first theme were accurately conveyed, although the first movement lacked some of the liveliness and brilliance required by the con brio marking. The other movements got more exciting, notably the heartfelt melancholy of the Andante, the energy and good voicing in the Scherzo (called here Menuetto) and the wit of the finale. The overall performance was enjoyable, but the occasional imperfection in synchronization prevented the music from reaching sustained expressivity.
Grieg's suite fared slightly better. Due to the popular nature of the tunes featured, MITSO's rendition of "Peer Gynt" was engaging, despite very occasional intonation difficulties. Again, the winds stood out with captivating solos in the first movement, "Morning Mood," which suffused the audience with its serenity. The strings had their moment in "Ase's Death," a movement for muted strings only, where they effectively conveyed the hero's sorrow watching his mother on her deathbed. "Anitra's Dance" featured the triangle, perhaps a little too abundantly, so that despite the good dance impetus, the movement came out less expressive than the other three. Finally, the famous troll chase from "In the Hall of the Mountain King" was extremely entertaining and good humored. Although in MITSO's rendition, the trolls seemed to stumble occasionally while chasing Peer Gynt, by the end, the hero makes a successful escape and the piece ends with a fulfilling bang.