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Power and conviction

MALCOLM MILLER reviews the MIT Symphony Orchestra's concert
at St John's Smith Square in London, including the first UK performance
of 'Jubal' by Peter Child


The idea of a student orchestra performing Mahler and Penderecki in the cavernous acoustic of London's St John's Smith Square could seem daunting, but there was no doubt of the professionalism and high standards of the MIT Symphony Orchestra at its impressive concert on 29 May 2002, under the baton of charismatic conductor Dante Anzolini. The orchestra rose to the challenges of a formidable programme, which featured the UK première of Jubal by British born, Boston based composer Peter Child, and Penderecki's Viola Concerto in a stirring performance by Marcus Thompson. The concert was the first in a UK tour taking them to Cambridge and to Bath, sponsored by the joint Anglo American Cambridge-MIT Institute, which aims to foster exchanges amongst these two leading institutions.

The UK première of Jubal seemed apt for a UK tour timed for the Golden Jubilee weekend, but Child's title was inspired by Dryden's Ode to St Cecelia, which acclaims the biblical inventor of musical instruments. Composed last October for the New England Conservatory Orchestra, Jubal has been performed by the MIT orchestra during its recent European tour to Prague. Peter Child gained his main musical education in the USA where he moved at the age of twenty, and where his main oeuvre stems, in almost every genre. Jubal certainly attests to a mastery of the orchestra and sure sense of structural purpose, though the style seems more akin to 70s avant-garde than to the recent aesthetics of the new millennium. There are plenty of dramatic outbursts following welling climaxes, interspersed by quieter interludes, an unusually rich use of contrapuntal textures, based on motifs that draw on all twelve tones, though not serial, and which transform through a myriad of colouristic guises (one for harp and percussion springs to mind). As well as being finely crafted there is a unifying mood that reaches a peak in an expressive pedal point, sustained dissonance in the horns with side drum interjections, preparing for a pensive conclusion.

From the very first bars, Penderecki's Viola Concerto held one's attention with arresting immediacy. Marcus Thompson gave a suavely assured yet soulful account, the simple, sighing semitones of the opening soliloquy that later permeates the thematic texture polished and resonant. This is a masterpiece of its genre, tautly structured yet optimistic and expressive, tonally guided though a highly dissonant surface to ultimate resolution in the moving conclusion. Ingeniously the viola hardly plays together with the orchestra but instead engages in dialogue, through extended interludes, two explicitly marked 'cadenza', intensifying in each appearance. The orchestra dovetails smoothly, the viola's tone gliding seamlessly into the vividly syncopated wind, brass and notably timpani gestures that Anzolini directed intrepidly. The final section was especially exciting, the incisive, dissonant and polyphonic cadenza gaining energy towards the orchestra's buoyant impetus, until a sudden return to the initial sigh motif in strings, over which the viola presents a beautifully expressive and tender new melody, dissolving into a tonic focus.

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Copyright © 1 June 2002 Malcolm Miller, London, UK




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