Bringing Music Back Alive - Sam Markson on MITSO

Modern classical performance is often a rigid form — a study of strict tempos, pitches, and moods. The performers take it upon themselves to recreate the vision of the original artist, and as that artist is usually dead, that recreation can become a study in accuracy rather than exploration — what not to play, rather than what to play.

Unless it’s done well, of course.

In music, as with college-age social gatherings, there’s a fine line between recreation and regurgitation. Capturing the intended feel is much more than following directions. To get an 80-person orchestra to sync up to a cohesive emotional message takes time, effort and soul. And I’m happy to say that MITSO has some of that.

Opening their concert with Dvorák’s Carnival Overture, the group instantly turned away from the outside world and toward that of music, with the audience following suit. The performance was solid, and an excellent opener — perhaps the most recognizable piece of the night, and a palatable choice for the as-yet-untuned ear. Conductor Adam Boyles’s performance here was strikingly energetic, but still precise enough to lend the orchestra a startlingly unified sound: here were not eighty individuals, but one voice, and one message.

Next up was Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring soloist Matthew A. Serna ’09. Following half a century later, Prokofiev’s music is much less defined than Dvorák’s, and the concert order here did much to accentuate the better parts of the latter piece. The flowing, dreamlike quality of Prokofiev’s music was well-realized by Serna, with good interplay between piano and orchestra. Boyles added just the right touches to perfect the natural shifts in rhythmic and sonic intensity, leading the audience from semi-cadence to semi cadence without ever resolving completely.

After the intermission, Boyles introduced the next piece, MIT Professor Peter B. Child’s 2006 Composition “Punkie Night,” a musical tribute to an English Halloween-like custom. Asking for audience participation, Boyles explained the rules: make ghoulish noises on cue, and decrescendo slowly on command. More light-hearted and jaunty than the previous pieces, this work had the added bonus of being incompletely rehearsed — thus, the orchestra had no difficulty making “Punkie Night” seem fresh to the audience. Excellent contrast between the rapidity in the upper strings and the booming ostinatos within the low brass — all in all, a fun, succinct work.

Finally came Sinfonia Sevillana, a work by the relatively obscure Spanish composer Joaquin Turina. The perfect closer, the Sinfonia had all the best of defiant grandeur and restrained agony, a “tone poem” to a country. Oscillating between heart-rending solo lines, full orchestral melodies, and grandiose conclusions, the piece was a cinematic masterpiece. It ended, and all of Kresge exhaled in time.

After a good performance, one thinks, “I don’t think that could have been any better.” After a great performance, you don’t think. You only feel. The music has transcended the paper, so that it’s more than time signatures and breath marks. That’s the office of live music.

And that’s what MITSO supplied.