CONCERT REVIEW An American classical music fest

MITSO and MITWE premiere works by MIT composers, pay tribute to American music

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The MIT Wind Ensemble plays the world premiere of Spring Rituals, directed by Dr. William Cutter, lecturer in music and director of choral program at MIT. The ensemble’s spring concert was in Kresge Auditorium last Saturday.
Meng Heng Touch—The Tech

Last weekend was truly delightful for classical music fans. A substantial portion of the music-making community came together to deliver two entertaining concerts, which included world premieres, surprises, awards, experiments and of course, great music. Last Friday, MIT Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adam Boyles, premiered the Symphony No. 2 by MIT music lecturer Charles Shadle and then joined forces with Aardvark Jazz Ensemble for an exquisite tour of the jazz world. A day later, the MIT Wind Ensemble led by Frederick Harris, featured the chamber chorus to premier the vocal suite Spring Rituals by MIT music lecturer William Cutter, after which it explored the unusual music of Charles Ives. Both conductors went to great lengths to dispel the traditional stuffiness of classical music concerts, by introducing funny anecdotes with the music to be played and demonstrating how the music works. Given these educational elements, the concerts were particularly engaging for the audience, constituting the perfect antidote to the gloomy, incessant rain that plagued the whole weekend.

Charles Shadle’s Symphony No. 2

At the MITSO concert, Charles Shadle’s Symphony No. 2 was introduced by conductor Adam Boyles as “a new, large American symphony.” According to the composer, the piece was in fact inspired by several real-life events involving relatives from his grandfather’s generation that happened somewhere in northwest Texas. The first movement is actually subtitled “Winter funeral in Clarendon, Texas” and evokes the emotions associated with attending the funeral of a distant relative. While not programmatic, the music is highly descriptive and engaging from the beginning. Using a carefully tonal language, Shadle opened the piece with a flowing, ascending motif, suggesting the vast prairie expanses of the Midwest. The typical American funeral was suggested by the second theme inspired from 19th century American folk hymns, a particularly moving chorale for the brass. Cast in the traditional sonata form, the whole movement is breezy, flowing and highly enjoyable. The second movement, a significantly darker elegy, was inspired by the life story of the composer’s grandfather, a frontier rancher who had a hard time adapting to the changing times of the early 20th century. The music was punctuated by a haunting descending-notes motif, which gave rise to a fugal subject in the middle section. A prominent bassoon solo depicted the loneliness and alienation of the individual, while the fugue may have symbolized the communal attempt at consolation. The last movement started off as a variation on the first movement’s theme, but with less chromatic ambiguity and in an upbeat, dotted rhythm. The music however, was less settled than in the previous movements and often pushes the limits of tonality. An episodic comic section, evocative of cowboy music added a refreshing emotional direction and instilled the energy to end the symphony on a rather optimistic note.

MITSO delivered a solid premiere performance of Shadle’s Symphony No. 2, aptly highlighting many of the composer’s intentions throughout the piece. Although the orchestration was often straightforward, the piece also presents numerous challenges, especially in fugal sections and tumultuous, cross-rhythmic tutti’s, all of which were well addressed by the orchestra. Under the patient, yet exuberant direction of Boyles, MITSO vividly recreated Shadle’s musical vision of vast Midwestern landscapes, including the unsettling emotional context. While the whole orchestra performed well, certain sections stood out more than others; the brass section was impressive in the lyrical passages and the ever-busy percussion section was always spot on. A special nod goes to the concertmaster Amanda Mok ’11, for her prominent solo violin contributions, played with good intensity and energy through out the symphony.

William Cutter’s Spring Rituals

The other world premiere of the weekend, MIT William Cutter’s Spring Rituals took place Saturday in the company of MIT chamber chorus and a handful of MIT Wind Ensemble members, under the direction of Frederick Harris. The vocal suite Spring Rituals explores the ancient symbolism of spring and rebirth through a series of poems spanning many different styles and eras. The piece opened with a recitative on the ancient Latin saying “Omne vivum ex ovo” (All life comes from an egg), foreshadowing the musical material to come. An anonymous folk incantation “Lo, the earth awakes again” established the subject matter about ancient spring pagan celebrations. The music is exuberant and declamatory, with delightful energy aptly sustained by the rich and imaginative percussion writing. The vocal lines engage in an intricate counterpoint leading to refreshing cross-rhythms and unusual harmonic landscapes, highly suggestive of the uncertain emotional transition that usually accompanies the coming of spring. The next movement, set to a text by Dione Fortune, meditates on the idea of transformation and renewal, from the perspective of a sea priestess, a central character in Wiccan religion. A mezzo-soprano solo symbolizes the priestess, initially barely audible under the thick and intricate accompanimental texture of the chorus, which symbolizes the tumult of the tidal waves. Eventually, the soloist emerged as a single voice, substantiating the idea of purification and rebirth. The music of this movement was very effective, capturing the emotional vagueness in the recurrent sighing motif that dominates the choral lines, as well as in the sparse yet melodic percussion interjections. The beginning recitatif on “Omne vivum ex ovo” returned in a more embellished form, this time accompanied by a solo oboe line. The music then abruptly moved into the scherzo-like movement set on the Emily Dickinson’s “A little madness in the Spring.” A reverse theme and variations for women’s chorus, this movement abounds in whimsical musical gestures, aptly suggesting “the clowning” mentioned in the poem. In stark contrast, the next movement develops as an expansive romantic song for solo baritone and men chorus. The text, “Love poem for Ostara” by Diane Sylvan revisits Wiccan spirituality as an ode to Ostara, the goddess of spring. The lush metaphors of the poem acquire vibrant and sensuous sonorities in Cutter’s music, which alternates meandering lines and more stately incantations over a hopeful, ascending bass line. The romantic atmosphere is completed by the wind trio (oboe, bassoon and horn) accompaniment which often echoes and amplifies the vocal melodic lines. The suite ends with a reprise of the “Lo, the earth awakes again”, once again symbolizing the cyclical nature of spring and rebirth.

Under the inspired direction of Frederick Harris, MIT chamber chorus and MITWE captivated the audience in their premiere rendition of Spring Rituals. The chamber chorus displayed not only their solid vocal abilities, but also their remarkable emotional dexterity, catering to the affective setting of each movement. Additionally, the soloists were extremely expressive. The tenor Sudeep Agarwala G (also a Tech arts writer) was positively haunting in his first recitatif; In the second statement, he transfigured the music in a new emotional realm, by employing a much sweeter, fleeting tone for the intricate melisma. As the sea priestess in the Dione Fortune text, mezzo-soprano Adriana L. Tam ’11 captivated with her pure voice and the depth of emotion. Her low register lines captured intimately the turmoil that precedes the rebirth, while her soaring recitatif at the end of the movement had a mesmerizing quality. In professing his adulation for the spring goddess, the baritone Daniel P. Cunningham G was moving and intense. His mellow voice added a nostalgic quality to the love song, while underlying the hopeful direction of the music.

MITSO meets the Jazz World

In an unexpected experiment, in the second half of the MITSO concert, director Adam Boyles took the orchestra for a slide in the jazz world. The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, led by Mark S. Harvey served as their guide. The audience was eased in with a selection from Duke Ellington’s The River, a famous multi-movement ballet score which showcases Ellington’s tireless imagination and vast musical inspiration. Each of the three movements performed started with Harvey improvising on the piano and establishing a melodic profile; the whole band then joined with an upbeat jazzy sound. The first movement performed, named “The Spring” was punctuated by a number of obligatory solos; first Richard Nelson, on electric guitar, who focused on a melodic figuration; then Phil Scarff on tenor sax delivered a flourished interlude and finally Chris Rakowski on alto sax spiced up the atmosphere with some intense high notes. The next movement, “The River”, depicted a more nostalgic picture that was characterized by sparse accompaniment and a haunting string bass-bass flute duo. Finally, the energy picked up once again in “The Village of the Virgins”. However, the more stately pulse of this movement conveyed a more mystical atmosphere, also instilled by the use of clarinet and bass flute in the winds. Overall, the jazz demonstration by Aardvark Orchestra was very enjoyable and well received by the audience.

MITSO then attempted to hold its own in the new found style and accompanied jazz singer Patrice Williamson for a set of three songs orchestrated by Nelson Riddle. In fact, this may be the first time that these particular orchestral versions are performed on the concert stage. These songs hark back to the golden era of jazz in the 60ies, when they were made famous by Ella Fitzgerald and her generation. Williamson’s singing was impressive from the onset. Her suave, deep voice, together with her excellent diction and calculated vibrato added significant emotional depth to the music. Particularly, in the more melancholic “I stayed too long at the fair”, Williamson was especially expressive, without being overly dramatic.

For the closer, MITSO and Aardvark joined forces to render “Adam and Eve Ballet” by Cole Porter, in the Hollywood-style arrangement by Nelson Riddle. This score from the film Can-Can seemed like a piece one would find in Boston Pops repertoire. Although in unfamiliar territory, MITSO handled this challenge very well and delivered a resounding performance, full of energy and exuberance. The jazz beat that appears initially as a secondary idea, gradually takes the spotlight and becomes the overwhelming victor at the end. In fact, the music is so danceable and contagious that by the end, most people in the audience as well as many performers on stage were engaged in dance moves to the beat. While the pairing and the clash between classical and jazz orchestras seemed unusual at first, the exhilarating response from the audience made this surprising experiment a huge success.

Latifah Hamzah performs

The MITSO concert opened with a movement from Dvorak’s violin concerto, featuring violinist Latifah Hamzah ’12, the co-winner of the 2010 MIT Concerto Competition. The rendition of the third movement of Dvorak’s violin concerto was solid, highlighting the beauty of the Czech folk tunes and virtuosic capabilities of the violin. Hamzah showcased a commanding technique, with extremely accurate bowings and pristine pitches across the entire register. Her elegant and composed manner of playing was captivating in the lyrical passages, particularly in the minor middle section. The showy parts seemed however, underpowered, also in part due to orchestra’s occasional lack of presence. Nevertheless, factoring in the limited rehearsal time devoted to this piece, the performance was overall very enjoyable.

MITWE demonstrates Ives

Besides the Spring Rituals suite, the MITWE concert featured several full-ensemble openers and a collection of three works by Charles Ives. The first piece in the program, Frank Ticheli’s “Postcard” turned out to be excessively contemporary and aimless. Its main redeeming quality was its succinctness. The performance sounded uncomfortable, but it successfully pushed through the overly-ambitious rhythmic profile of the piece. Percy Grainger’s “Colonial Song” brought the ensemble in a more familiar territory. The warm sound of the low brass dominated the opening tune, while the tutti’s sounded well-blended and highly satisfying. The next piece came from the master of the wind ensemble writing, Gustav Holst His Suite No.2 in F received a very insightful performance, vividly depicting the storylines of each and every song that the suite is based on. Especially notable movements were the second, which featured memorable solos by the oboe and clarinet, and the third, which showcased the versatility of the percussion section.

Charles Ives’s music has always been revered by the musical connoisseurs, but to a much lesser extent by the general audiences, in part because of Ives’s highly experimental and unusual musical language. Therefore, it was very exciting to witness the demonstration put together by MITWE and conductor Fred Harris in the second half of their concert. Harris and the ensemble first explained methodically the individual aspects of Ives’s music, the composer’s background and intentions and how they all come together. Relevant fragments were performed to illustrate the main points. Thus, at the time of the complete rendition of the works, the audience had the opportunity to appreciate Ives’s music from a fresh and clearer perspective. The pieces performed were: “Fugue in C,” “Country Band March” and “Decoration Day,” combined together into a kind of short symphony titled My Father’s Song. The choice of the pieces highlights various stages in Ives’ musical style development. The first work stays mostly within the confines of tonality. The second explores the sonorities of typical musical blunders that happen in a country band. The last distills all these elements into a more programmatic work.

MITWE did a tremendous job performing Ives’s masterpieces. Their good ensemble playing was particularly impressive in the “Country Band March,” which achieved vividly the intended comic effect of a broken band in disarray. The “Decoration Day” rendition was marvelous; the chimes filled the atmospheric sonorities, helping bring to life the slow procession that marches on Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day).

As a fitting end to an exuberant concert, Frederick Harris received the 2010 Hall of Fame award from the Massachusetts Instrumental & Choral Conductors Association for commissioning new wind ensemble works and for his overall contributions to the musical community in Massachusetts as an instructor and conductor.