The MIT Wind Ensemble, directed by Frederick Harris, Jr., displayed their considerable skill and accomplishment in a concert at Kresge Auditorium last night, with major attention focused on a new work composed for them that filled the second half of the program. The evening’s first item, ably conducted by assistant conductor Kenneth Amis, was Divertissement for Doubled Wind Quintet (1895) by the French organist and composer Émile Bernard (1843-1902). Bernard may have been only a petit maître, but he had plenty of melodic and harmonic imagination and all the skill needed to produce a delightful work, very much in the same vein as the somewhat better-knownPetite symphonie for the same combination by Charles Gounod (1885). Call it an homage, too, to the Paris Conservatoire’s tradition of woodwind playing, which has remained unsurpassed for a century and more.
The rest of the first half consisted of New England arrangements. Copland’s short and lovely Variations on a Shaker Melody is the last part of Appalachian Spring, well known on band programs. When Jesus Wept (1958) is William Schuman’s arrangement of one movement from his orchestral New England Triptych (1956), and it is dull indeed, almost as dull as one of Virgil Thomson’s hymn tunes; I suppose it shows what happens when a New York composer takes off from William Billings, who at least was a genuine Bostonian. On the other hand, Profanation, the scherzo movement from Leonard Bernstein’s Jeremiah, was exciting and beautifully played, and Harris handled the very tricky meter changes, full of fives and sevens, with effortless grace. This lively piece foreshadows the “Masque” movement of Bernstein’s second symphony, Age of Anxiety, and even the “rumble” music of West Side Story. Jeremiah is his first symphony, composed in 1942 when he was 24, and although it is rarely heard it sounds as full and sturdy as any American symphonic work of the period, and it wears well even in a band arrangement. I couldn’t remember whether it was this movement or another part of the symphony that contains Bernstein’s direction to beat the timpani with maracas; at any rate, I didn’t see it.
After the intermission came Awakening: In Recognition of the Arab Spring, by Jamshied Sharifi, composer in residence at MIT and himself an alumnus of the class of 1983. This expressive work in three movements received a warm welcome from the large audience. The first movement, “Maghreb / Bouazizi / The Uprisings, began with an ornamented oboe melody in dialogue with a group of flutes, supported by a warm G-minor chordal background, followed a while later by a piccolo solo with vibraphone tremoli, and a horn melody with dotted accompaniment punctuated by percussion in slow harmony. The second movement was titled “Reflection: Let Each One Hear Her Own Thoughts.” This was appropriately reflective, in F-major/minor with light textures in a slow six-beat, and a good deal of accompanimental ostinato. The final movement, “Ahead: The Real Transformation Has Barely Begun,” wavered between D-minor and F-major modal harmony, with shifts of triple and quadruple meter, coming to a big fortissimo that ended with a sign of hope.
“For those of us with Persian heritage who watched the earlier political protests in Iran, initially with hope and then with bitter disappointment, the success of the civil movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were especially gratifying,” the composer wrote in his program note. I congratulate the composer also on his well-differentiated use of colors within the ensemble, including plenty of solo writing. Too many composers for the symphonic wind ensemble and concert band use too much tutti too often. Here, the composer kept the tutti in reserve only for the necessary moments.
I am aware that MIT has made a special effort to put all of its lecture courses on line, which means a special video effort. This was over-abundantly evident at last night’s concert, with three manned stationary cameras on tripods at the rear and sides, and a roving cameraman on stage throughout, whose constant changes of location (at one point even bumping into the percussion players who were only trying to do their job) were exceedingly annoying, at least to this spectator. I suppose this is part of the technological wave of the future, but I don’t like it. But despite the visual distraction, the concert was very good indeed.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony. His most recent book is Schubert’s Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony (Pendragon Press). His website is here.