CONCERT REVIEW Beware the orchestra nerd

MITSO tackles the art of the romantic orchestra

MITSO and MIT Concert Choir

Adam Boyles, Conductor

Kresge Auditorium

Friday, May 7, 2010

They’re clearly the most fun to make fun of in middle school and high school. Among a sea of athletes and garage bands, the pianists, percussionists, the trumpeteers, the clarinetists, and even violinists are social outcasts in the grand scheme of ridiculous adolescent social circles. But in the musical hierarchy, they’re somehow top dog. They’re cool; they sit at the back of the bus during band tours. Somehow they exude confidence, knowing they command the respect of the small circle of art aficionados, of the small enclave adults and peers that cultivate this sort of erudition.

Try lumbering up the front steps of the high school with a tuba as large as you are at seven in the morning or rushing off to the local church after school to practice the organ, or becoming proficient in the bassoon. Much worse: try being in choir. So long after we survive the gauntlet of high school, after we’ve licked our wounds and watched them turn into scars, there’s an entire game of getting together with fellow ex-band geeks, choir dorks or orchestra nerds as adults: comparing notes, sympathizing, and, if you’re wise, drinking heavily.

There’s an important exercise in being ignored and largely ridiculed, as was demonstrated by the MIT Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of Adam Boyles on the evening of Friday, March 7th. In addition to a well structured and even-keeled performance of Romantic orchestral works, MITSO’s performance showcased some of the dark horses of our graciously fading youth, exemplifying what ardent students of the not-so-popular arts can achieve and deliver.

Friday’s concert began with Carl Maria von Weber’s Andante and Hungarian Rondo, featuring Benjamin Steinhorn ’12 on bassoon. Weber’s work is decidedly difficult. Although his narrative and harmonic language is one that we’re largely familiar with and largely enamored of, it is also one that requires sharp contrasts and dramatic shifts in both character and timbre. Steinhorn was well appreciated by the orchestra. Graceful and strikingly precise, Steinhorn’s ability to construct a sweepingly lyrical line and attention to detail was prominent and well-balanced both as soloist and accompaniment to orchestra. Boyles’s MITSO responded in kind, embracing the intricacies of Weber’s labyrinthine score. Both soloist and ensemble produced a strong, unified thesis as to what Weber’s work fundamentally means.

Friday evening’s concert concluded with Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 3, the Organ, so named because of its prominent feature of the keyboard instrument throughout the two-movement work. Boyles’s introduction to the work prepared us, but by no means warned us of the striking tonality of the instrument. Although, yes, a stolid, Romantic work, Saint-Saëns’s sensibility throughout the entire work is somehow more fragile than those of Wagnerian or (even) Brahmsian counterparts. Moments of the work slip into Schubertian reveries, or seem to imitate Beethoven at his most meditative and careful; even the eponymous instrument of the symphony enters into the work almost unnoticed, and it’s not until the Maestoso portion of the second movement that we realize the true hymnal nature of the work and it’s requirement of the church instrument for the work’s summary realization.

A challenging work, the orchestra responded well to the unfamiliar timbres of the orchestra. Zach Bjørnson ’10, at the organ, is of particular note: a testament to his command of the instrument, Bjørnson’s organ maintained a staid and decorous accompaniment to Boyles’s leadership when required, yet unleashed the masterful chorale demanded in the final movement of the piece. Also of note were the piano duet of Dustin Katzin ’12 and Jean Sack ’13, whose treatment of Saint-Saëns’s four-handed ornamented hymn setting in the final movement was nothing short of virtuosic.

But this is not to ignore the choral work of Friday evening’s concert. Commissioned and composed in 1965, Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms are certainly not part of the standard Romantic repertoire, yet command much of the discipline and thinking that were prevalent in Weber’s and Saint-Saëns’s work. Tender lullabyes burst into violent war-cries on the turn of a dime, and craggy poly-rhythmic sections underscore sweeping lyrical lines. Although Bernstein’s tonal world is one both Weber and Saint-Saëns would surely have recoiled at, after West Side Story and Candide, it is one that is almost as familiar and nostalgic to our modern ear.

How lucky, then, to be Sammy Andonian, and to have heard the things he’s heard by the age of twelve. The boy soprano of the middle movement of Bernstein’s three movement work, Andonian was charged with the weighty words of none other than Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, or, in Bernstein’s setting of the Hebrew: Adonai ro-i, lo ehsar). Although a strikingly beautiful melodic line, it’s easy to forget how disciplined a musician is necessary to sustain Bernstein’s lyricism and to negotiate Bernstein’s eclectic counterpoint. Andonian delivered expectation and far more, singing the ancient words with a clear pitch and a resonant tone, unfettered by the shouts and murmurs of the roaring men’s voices of the MIT Concert Chorus.

Interplay between choir and orchestra was also striking — although it’s simple to prefer one ensemble over the other, Boyles’s realization of the intermixing between the two ensembles (MIT Concert Chorus, prepared by Mr. William Cutter) balanced both ensembles such that the dramatic narrative corresponded freely between the two stridently different groups. Small ensemble solo work by members of the MIT Concert Chorus were well balanced and supported by the sensitive playing of the MITSO.

MITSO’s Friday evening performance concluded the musical season for the orchestra as well as the chorus on a markedly high note. This is no small task for the two ensembles, after an eventful year including a visit from internationally renowned conductor Gustavo Dudamel, commissions from Peter Child, and collaborations with each other in celebration of Mendelssohn’s bi-centenary as well as with the Jazz Ensemble. Such a vibrant and active music department, eager to showcase its student talent and achievement, is testament not only to the ongoing energy of the music department, but also the zeal and considerable abilities of the students it trains. MITSO resumes its season next academic year on Friday, October 22.