The MIT Wind Ensemble’s “2nd Annual Prism Concert Spectacular,” promised a “unique amalgam of music, lights, film, technology, and spacial (sic) inventiveness,” a short film by Ronald Searle, and the world premiere of NoteStream, a “Real-Time Program Note Service” to the Kresge crowd on Friday. The hard sell didn’t quite come up to its billing.
According to Music Director Frederick Harris, it constituted a “Prism concert” in part due to the range of years featured (from the 16th century to today), and perhaps because it primarily comprised small contrasting slices of music following closely upon one-another. Some pieces emerged from the alcove high on the left side of Kresge Auditorium. A handful of Interludes (short pieces of overlapping fragments of contrasting texture) written by Assistant Conductor Kenneth Amis came from small groups scattered invisibly around the hall. It flowed quickly and mostly seamlessly, accompanied by striking light cues—hence, “amalgam, though the audience seemed confused about whether and when to applaud.
About halfway through, the musicians stopped while we all watched Ronald Searle’s (1957) Energetically Yours, an animation sponsored by Esso—that is, the Standard Oil Company. Searle’s signature style (balloonish bodies, spindly limbs) was deployed in the service of a fable of human progress in energy production starting fire with ending with the triumph of the “Age of Gasoline” (of course). Blissfully unaware of global warming and relentlessly optimistic about petroleum, it was squirm inducing. Much of the humor landed limply, though I did enjoy the episode where James Watt uses a spinning wheel and spoons to create a steam-powered Rube Goldberg machine. It terminated in an automatically rocking cradle controlled by an armature made of a two-man timber saw, the saw’s teeth just inches above the sleeping child… it sounds more terrifying written out than it was to watch, trust me. The film ostensibly justified the inclusion of the Ronald Searle Suite, a revision of the film’s score by Lyn Murray, chopped into eleven (!) tiny movements. Pleasant and well-crafted, it evaporated from memory almost immediately, despite our hearing it twice.
At the end, NoteStream debuted with Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy. One could navigate to the MIT Wind Ensemble site on one’s phone and see successions of informative notes scroll by in sync with the performance. There were two “tracks” one could follow: the Story track giving information about the songs Grainger used, while the Score track showed tiny snippets of notation to help draw attention to certain entrances or motives. I used NoteStream all the way through the first movement, “Lisbon”, and it had the same effect on me that I experience if I use my phone while driving: the main thing I am supposed to be doing disappears from my experience, and all my attention is drawn to the function of my device. I had no useful memory of the movement. After that, I checked in on NoteStream only occasionally, and while it was nifty to see the details of Grainger’s rhythmic eccentricity expressed in the score, I can’t say I could do much with the information as it went along. It seems to me any initiative that encourages people to use their phones during a concert is only asking for trouble. Nathan Gutierrez, the young spokesman for the project, said that it aimed to make the concert experience more “immersive.” I’ll let you parse that out for yourselves.
As you might expect from a non-conservatory group, the quality of execution varied; and as you might expect from a wind ensemble, the assemblage was eclectic to the point of confusion. The full ensemble makes a rich and characteristic sound; they were augmented on this occasion by players from Norwood and Newton South High Schools. Lincolnshire Posy was clearly the artistic focus of the evening, and under Harris’s baton it proved dramatically effective and strongly characterized—Grainger’s rhythmic twitches and harmonic twists cleanly executed and well-integrated. In the same composer’s rather more densely orchestrated Shepherd’s Hey, some rhythmic looseness and wandering intonation led to muddiness.
Amis brought a perfectly idiomatic muscular tachycardia to Prokofiev’s Athletic Festival March. The percussion section (I counted 19 players!) gave a thrilling reading of Derek Hare’s (b. 1923) Knomery, a study in syncopation with a cool groove that evoked Elmer Bernstein’s more jagged jazz efforts. A handful of individual performances stood out: Ronald Ogden’s soprano saxophone was achingly plaintive in Carl Anton Wirth’s (1912-1986) Portals for saxophone ensemble; and string bassist Dominique Hoskin’s heavy musical and visual swing in the “Whale” movement of the Ronald Searle Suite was the only thing that lingered from that work. Finally, two percussionists from Norwood High School, Jason Amis and Mark Larrivee, gave a musical and nuanced performance of Nathan Daughtrey’s (b. 1975) Tour de Force, a work less imposing than its title implies. It was a clever and occasionally surprising dialogue, well-balanced and thoughtful.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.