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MIT Symphony Orchestra

MIT Chamber Chorus

Adam Boyles, conductor

Kresge Auditorium

May 8, 2009

Maybe it’s glib to say, but I have a hypothesis that the volume knob has led to the destruction of classical music. The fast-forward and the rewind button too, but the volume knob more than anything else: Music can be painfully loud or imperceptibly soft, but modulating volumes for the sake of homogeneity of the listenable somehow disrupts the ultimate message. Extremity in music makes a very important point, even if it’s uncomfortable to listen to.

The MIT Symphony Orchestra presented a very loud concert on last Friday, and for a good purpose — a concert of Stravinsky, Ravel, and Shostakovich isn’t necessarily standard fare for the concert hall, but all works were received and performed with an exhilarating exuberance.

The evening’s concert crackled with the opening of Welcher’s Spumante even before the initial applause had subsided. Originally commissioned for the Boston Pops, Welcher’s work was more accessible than many of the pieces that were performed on Friday evening. This doesn’t translate into less nuanced music, however — an initial, fizzy pop followed by a staid chorale creatively culminated in a satisfying conclusion.

These are games that musicians have been playing since the inception of Western music, and the second work at Friday’s concert, Chorale-Variations on Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her, composed by Stravinsky, was essentially this: a study on how a chorale tune by Bach can interact with itself in seemingly endless possibilities. Or Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane, performed with concerto competition winner Tanya S. Goldhaber ’09 — a rhapsody on a Hungarian melody that becomes expounded and elaborated upon throughout the entire composition.

As easy as the concepts behind the music may seem, the music is almost impossibly complex. Performed with a partial orchestra and the MIT Chamber chorus, Stravinsky’s arrangement of Bach’s chorale lacks the grounding, stentorian cantus firmus we’re so used to when we’re listening to the Baroque master, making the work difficult to perform. At times the ensemble seemed somewhat imbalanced in confidence but also in instrumentation — brass and woodwinds sometimes obfuscated finer details of the string instrumentation and choral parts. But Stravinsky’s smaller settings of Renaissance works often misses the attention of larger performance venues and professional venues. To perform the work, at any level, is to be able to explore the great mind of a great thinker of music in finer detail than the world cares to know.

Ravel’s Tzigane was arresting. Although intonation and articulation were at times imprecise, what was particularly stunning about Goldhaber’s performance was her ability to interpret Ravel’s Hungarian reverie with a sense of ownership both musically and emotionally. Somehow, the solo opening changed from stately recital to vigorous folk-melody. Goldhaber performed with an authenticity and fervor that indicated a deep relationship with the music. This understanding was not lost on an orchestra that exuded the excitement of a Gypsy folk troupe.

To be honest, it seems silly to write about Shostakovich. The public perception of the twelfth symphony, as it seems with all of Shostakovich’s music, is riddled with neurotic navel-gazing about his political leanings. Though this sort of discourse is an interesting academic exercise, it seems to scare people off from the ultimate take home message of it all: this is incredible music, and MITSO responded in kind. In fact, the entire evening seemed to be twinged with fragments of Shostakovich; individual instrumentalists could be heard rehearsing the all-encompassing theme prior to the performance and during intermissions and even following Mr. Boyles’s introductory remarks about Shostakovich’s symphony, an electrified silence seized both audience and orchestra.

As with all the music performed on Friday evening, Shostakovich’s work is not easy — certainly kudos are due to all the performers on stage, but Shostakovich, in particular, requires an almost-professional bass and woodwind section. Horns were impeccable yet nuanced in their articulation, bassoons played each note in hair-raising runs as if they were pearls on a string. This was, in its own rite, the most impressive part about the performance — the attention to detail in Shostakovich’s work spoke volumes not only about Boyles’s preparation of the orchestra, but also about the dedication of each student to reach a complete synthesis of the substantial work.

There’s an argument that young musicians performing major works run into problems: there’s a need to develop a sense of musical maturity and development before attempting a major work. But if that’s true, the way we hear this music at one age is completely different from how we hear it after a week, a year, or much longer. Perhaps, that’s part of what’s so interesting about performing and hearing music often and early. And, truth be told, why it’s all the more valuable not just to hear, but to experience it earlier.