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Rex Lam

The MIT Symphony Orchestra’s first performance of the season in Kresge auditorium last Saturday, Oct. 12.

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MIT Symphony Orchestra

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Opus 56, Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp minor (Farewell Symphony), Mussorgsky/Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition

8 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013

Kresge Auditorium

Last semester, I went to my first MITSO concert to write a report for 21M.011 Introduction to Western Music. I remember enjoying the concert very much and wishing that I had known about MITSO performances earlier. Since I had somewhat put western classical music in the back of my mind, I decided to start off my Columbus Day Weekend by attending the first MITSO concert of the 2013–2014 season, in hopes of refreshing my musical knowledge. While I was perhaps only partially successful in that regard, the student orchestra was once again nothing short of spectacular.

The first piece was Johannes Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Opus 56. Not recalling much of what I had learned about themes and variations in music class, I listened to this performance without paying too much attention to structure and specific musical elements. What stood out the most for me was the blending of different instrumental sounds. While this is by no means a characteristic unique to this piece, the use of a wide range of instruments gave the performance an extra dimension. Unfortunately, despite an entertaining finale, I found this piece to be quite forgettable.

Before the start of the second piece, the conductor Adam Boyles introduced himself and the orchestra. He then gave the audience some background on the Brahms piece, noting that it was actually only a librarian’s guess that Haydn had composed the theme from which the variations are based. Nowadays, this piece is commonly known as St. Anthony Variations to avoid any confusion. A great storyteller, Boyles moved on to describe the second piece of the concert, Symphony no. 45 (Farewell) by Haydn. I learned that this was a piece of protest music that Haydn had composed to hint to his patron that the musicians were tired and wanted to leave. To accomplish this, the symphony deviates from the standard structure of the genre and instead features an adagio ending. During this finale, musicians drop out one by one until only two are left. In addition, the conductor pointed out that the string players would hold their bows differently to recreate the effects of playing with shorter bows back when musicians first performed the piece.

When the first movement began, I immediately recognized the strings’ recurrent line. Marked by strong and powerful strokes, the melody was full of emotions and seemed to convey inner feelings about to burst. I was able to follow the structure of this symphony and recognize the transitions between movements, the slow tempo of the second movement, and the dance-like beat of the third movement. Perhaps I still retained some knowledge from music class after all.

As expected, the highlight of the Farewell Symphony came at the end, when urgent and powerful phrases gave way to thinner and thinner sounds, until even the conductor himself walked off the stage to laughter, leaving two violinists to finish off an entertaining and exciting piece.

Following a short intermission, the musicians played the main attraction of the concert — Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, arranged by Maurice Ravel. The piece portrays a walk through an exhibition, interlacing the “promenade” movement with movements that depict the individual pictures by the artist Viktor Hartmann. Having never heard the piece, I did not know what to expect in each movement and found myself on the edge of my seat, following the ups and downs of the performance. Some parts featured prominent percussion sounds that set an ominous tone, while others highlighted instruments such as the flute and the horn. A common theme throughout was the power of the colorful orchestration.

My favorite part of musical performances has always been the visual element, and this concert was no different. Knowing the importance of bow movement synchronization, I paid particularly close attention to the bow movements of the string players, and especially enjoyed the variety of long and short notes that required very different uses of the bow. However, I was very surprised that the musicians maintained stern facial expressions, regardless of whether the music was cheery or dark. It was not until the standing ovation and loud applause at the end of the concert that I saw a crack of smile.

I enjoyed the concert very much, but actually what I was impressed by most of all were the students on stage. How do they find the time to practice? Sometimes, it is easy to forget that our peers have talents beyond taking derivatives and building robots. We may be a school full of top-notch engineers, but if you ever attend a MITSO concert, you would learn that we are also a school full of talented musicians.