Bringing Music Back Alive - Sudeep Agarwala on MITSO

When did classical music become boring? It’s not hard to understand why it is: music is taught at schools on a pedestal lower than, yet not distinct from calculus, English literature or honors French. It’s been mummified beyond recognition — at some point, students are asked not to listen to music, but to understand the music — in fact, there are musical rules, drills and practices that students must complete with stoic integrity, an entire body of history to digest and, if you can imagine — exams, even.

As a proud product of this system, I feel I can’t complain. As little as I’d like to believe it, there’s a sense to all of this education, but part of me can’t help but feel that this Spartan training does more harm for the form than it helps educate. Its proponents only act to exacerbate the situation: classical music stations somehow endow their radio announcers with precise diction and stiff, wooden personalities and it’s no secret that the best way to feel incredibly young and poor is to attend a recital at Symphony Hall the Gardner Museum or any of the various musical venues in or around Boston.

In this suffocating context, the MITSO concert on Friday, Oct. 10, in Kresge Hall was a breath of fresh air. The auditorium was virtually crackling with energy from audience members as director Adam Boyles charged onto stage and drove the orchestra in a thrilling performance of Antonin Dvorák’s Carnival Overture (Op. 92).

The conductor makes a real difference: Friday’s concert marks the beginning of the second season that Boyles has been working with the MITSO and the results have been consistently amazing. Boyles’s MITSO is vibrant, excited and exciting and Carnival was no exception. Boyles, conducting without a score for the entire concert (a feat most conductors only strive for), confidently led the orchestra through the second of Dvorák’s Nature, Life and Love overtures. His dynamism was reflected in the orchestra from the phrasing of long melodic lines traded from section to section to the remarkably clean Alberti bass motive that appeared throughout the string sections.

Prokofiev was no different. It certainly didn’t seem like it was going to be: the third piano concerto begins in a pensive orchestral reverie. This, however, has little to do with the rest of the piece: the piano enters and quickly transforms the piece into a thrilling and high-energy dialogue. Matthew A. Serna ’09 negotiated the considerable third piano concerto with devastating ability.

Certainly, moments between the orchestra and soloist seemed unsteady in the first movement and the balance between the piano and the orchestra was skewed such that the orchestra often obfuscated some of Serna’s detailed piano work. However, Serna was able to compensate for these issues and more: the second movement of the concerto, a theme and variation between piano and orchestra, was virtuosic in its conception and performance.

Serna struck a fair balance in this movement, emphasizing the melody of the theme but found a fair balance with Prokofiev’s hair-raising counterpoint. The energy that was building throughout the performance of the concerto culminated in the final movement, the conclusion of which received a well-earned standing ovation for both soloist and orchestra.

The second portion of Friday night’s performance began with a composition from MIT faculty member Peter Child, Punkie Night, conceived and composed based off a folk tradition similar to that of Halloween. Although requiring audience participation, the piece itself seem to fail in the context of the concert—melodic lines meandered and never presented a solid thesis. A difficult work, the piece may have been more successful on a second or third hearing.

The highlight of the second portion was, by far, Joaquín Turina’s Sinfonia Sevillana (Op. 23). The only major Spanish symphony of the early nineteenth century, Turina utilizes a musical palette dense with melodies indigenous to his homeland. Here, Boyles provided a brief introduction to the piece, familiarizing the audience with the central leitmotif of the symphony.

These five minutes were invaluable to the audience’s appreciation of the music, providing the audience with context with which to understand the music: this melody is beautifully expounded upon and modified throughout the three movements of the piece, starting with a slow, evocative description of the spanish landscape in Panorama, ending in the festive Fiesta en San Juan de Aznalfarache. A difficult piece, there was a sense of absolute commitment to the music from both conductor and orchestra as they depicted Turina’s nostalgic images of Spain.

The overall effect of Friday evening’s concert, of course, was one of exhilaration. MITSO’s opening concert provided apt challenges to its audience while maintaining a sense of fun throughout the entire evening — most illustrative of this sense was the close of Sinfonia Sevillana, at which point, the woman sitting behind me simply gasped “Wonderful.”

It was, of course, wonderful: wonderful to see MITSO provide such an engrossing concert, wonderful not to be the youngest and poorest in the seats, but, instead, to see a rapt, engaged audience absorbed in exciting music — a refreshing a change from the droll, somnolent intellectual space that this wonderful music usually inhabits that left me wishing that more concerts were like this one. Though this was one of the largest audiences I have seen at Kresge Hall, it was still a pity to see even a single seat left empty.