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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

Some virtuosos play $4 million violins, and some Trojan heros wear brass rats by Anna H. '14

$4 million violins, not 4 million violins. Joshua Bell isn't *that* intense.

From a combination of

  • Being enrolled in a music class this semester
  • Having musically-inclined friends (and a relative) at MIT
  • Having the great fortune to be an MIT Arts Scholar

I attended four EXCELLENT concerts in the past week, for free.

Concert #1: Verdi’s Stabat Mater and Te Deum, performed by the MIT Symphony Orchestra (MITSO) and the MIT Concert Choir

Thursday night, I destroyed both of my knees running three miles on a very inclined treadmill. I paid for my improper shoes / insufficient stretching by spending most of Friday with my legs propped up on a giant stuffed (toy) bear, balancing an ice pack and wincing. But I sucked it up and journeyed down the five flights of New House stairs because MITSO and Concert Choir were performing, and

1) MITSO and the Concert Choir are fabulous, and
2) My little sister is in concert choir

Whenever I watch MIT students perform, I get very emotional (or maybe it was the knee pain). I think about how everyone on the stage is an extremely hardworking MIT college student, I look at a violinist and wonder if he or she is a biological engineer or a chemist or a physicist, I think about how all of these people are sitting together and making beautiful music, and I cry. When my kids perform in the 2030s/40s they’re going to hear sobbing from the audience and think “oh, COME ON, Mom! Get it together!”

PS: MITSO and Concert Choir concerts are free for “members of the MIT community” (I guess: students, faculty, staff? alums?) who purchase their tickets in advance. And in case you’re curious about upcoming concerts, here’s the MITSO schedule and here’s the Concert Choir schedule. Even if you know nobody in either ensemble, you should come.

PPS: There is one French House resident in MITSO: Jacob ’17 plays the bass. There are two French House residents in Concert Choir: Caitlin ’15 and Lisa ’17 are both altos.

Concert #2: Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, performed by the MIT Chamber Chorus

Saturday afternoon (the afternoon after the MITSO concert) I walked to Killian Hall and was totally astonished when the ticket collector at the door whipped out an iPhone and let me through even though I had forgotten to print out my hard copy ticket. Wow. TECHNOLOGY!

MIT’s Chamber Chorus performed a fully-staged production of Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas. We studied this opera in my music class, and I was excited to hear familiar pieces being sung by my friends: Davie ’12 was Aeneas (I used to be Davie’s neighbor; my room used to vibrate with his humming), Caitlin ’15, Elizabeth ’14, and Troy ’15 were in the chorus, Ben ’14 was an excellent drunken sailor, and Lizi ’12 was a heartless Spirit.

An interlude about the opera, for those of you who care:

<interlude>

Opera was not a Big Thing in 17th century England – certainly not in the way that it was a Big Thing in 17th century Italy and France. English “opera” consisted of short one-act plays that had musical scores and perhaps some song-and-dance interludes. There was a whole English “semi-opera” genre, with the now-counterintuitive feature that main characters did not sing because sung words are hard to understand. Musical entertainment and singing were left to the minor characters: they were an accessory, not the focus of the play.

Henry Purcell was an organist at Westminster Abbey, which is very strange to think about. As a little kid, I cried and insisted on leaving Westminster Abbey, because the tombs and dead people and grey stone blocks freaked me out. About a decade later, I graduated in a building right across the street from Westminster Abbey. So, that building and I have history, and it’s weird to think that Henry Purcell and I have stood on the same grey stone blocks.

My feelings on Westminster Abbey aside, Purcell was a musical genius. Period. That said, I admit that his “brash and pungent style” (a perfect phrase from my textbook by Richard Taruskin) has been an acquired taste for me. In my music class, we listened to his Overture in D Minor and Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, which I could get along with — but his Fantazia 7 in C Minor (which to my ear has no direction whatsoever) is a bit much. I do love his opera music, though. He was a superstar composer for the London stage, and his career highlights include The Fairy Queen and Dido and Aeneas.

When most people think of opera, they think: red plushy seats and people singing unintelligibly in a foreign language for FOUR HOURS. Or maybe that’s just what I used to think of, before I saw Carmen and The Magic Flute (admittedly, these are two of the most accessible operas out there). Dido and Aeneas is only about an hour long, and is one of the only 17th century English operas that was meant to be sung through from beginning to end. The English language is particularly difficult to set to music, in part because long syllables are not necessarily the stressed syllables. It’s cool to look at the opera score, and see the short-long (sixteenth note – dotted eighth note) rhythms that reflect typical English short-long word couplings (ex. “in peace,” “so much”). And it is very weird to listen to an opera, think that it must be in a foreign language, and realize in a rare burst of intelligibility that it’s in English. Anyway, Dido and Aeneas is a beautiful beautiful opera, and you should find a recording to listen to. Don’t be scared; it’s short!

</interlude>.

MIT’s production was staged by Lynn Torgove, who was adamant that it be characteristic to MIT. All the actors (aside from the one or two main characters in the scene) wore matching T-shirts and sneakers, and I noticed that Aeneas was wearing a brass rat. The performance was advertised as “[email protected]”: Dido aNd Aeneas. Har Har. But for me, it would have been characteristically MIT even with fancy period costumes and a Royal Opera House setting, because of all the familiar faces in the cast. Flipping through the program bios, you see things like “Aeneas is a first-year Ph.D. student in Applied Math,” “Dido is a sophomore…majoring in Computer Science,” and “First Lady is a senior linguistics major.” Actually, let me just list all of these, because they really give you a sense for why these productions are so special:

  • “Dido is a sophomore…majoring in Computer Science.”
  • “Aeneas is a first-year Ph.D. student in Applied Math. After completing his B.S. at MIT in 2012 (in Math and Music), [he] spent a year studying in Berlin under a Fulbright fellowship.”
  • “Belinda is a junior studying Computer Science and Molecular Biology (6-7)…She has arranged bilingual pop mashups for a cappella, and in her free time, she belts out Broadway and pop hits.”
  • “First Lady is a senior linguistics major at MIT…she has been an opera fangirl for many years now, and is excited to be performing in her first ever production!”
  • “Sorceress is a junior in course 5 (chemistry).”
  • “First Witch is a junior at MIT studying aerospace engineering.”
  • “Second Witch is a third year PhD student in AeroAstro Engineering.”
  • “Spirit…has a BS in electrical engineering from MIT and is completing an MEng in the same subject. She likes the color pink and loves to swing dance.”
  • “Sailor is a senior in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science as well as Physics.”

Isn’t that cool? I think it’s cool. Where else are you going to see a Dido and Aeneas production starring a bunch of computer scientists / mathematicians / electrical engineers / aerospace engineers / chemists?

PS: Lizi, Davie, Elizabeth, and Caitlin are all French House alums or residents. This means that a little over 20% of the cast is from French House. Considering that there are about 25-30 French House residents at any one time, and 4000 undergrads, that is statistically significant.

Concert #3: Lots Of Pieces, performed mind-bogglingly well by Joshua Bell at Boston’s Symphony Hall

It’s kind of hard to know what to say about this. I’ll start by telling you how I got a free ticket.

  1. Davie ’12 e-mailed the Arts Scholars mailing list, saying that Joshua Bell would be performing at Symphony Hall, and asking if we could get together and make the concert an official event.
  2. Sam, the Arts Scholars coordinator, said yes and got us all tickets.
  3. Sam reserved a table at a Japanese restaurant nearby, so that we could have a free lunch beforehand.

Done. Ah, the joys of being an Arts Scholar at MIT. I’m going to miss college.

We all showed up ready to have our minds blown by Joshua Bell’s virtuosity. The program read:

  • Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G minor, “Devil’s Trill Sonata”
  • Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10, Opus 96
  • Stravinsky Divertimento for violin and piano (after “The Fairy’s Kiss”)
  • “Remaining selections to be announced from stage”

So, there was an element of mystery to the performance. Also, I want to mention that Joshua Bell plays a 1713 Stradivarius, which he bought for $4 million. The violin has a very dramatic history, and I’m glad that it gets played regularly instead of stuffed in a museum box for people to gawk at.

After the Stravinsky piece, Joshua Bell took the microphone and with a mild “what? me? I’m good at the violin?” tone, said “we’d like to play a couple more pieces…an encore, whether you like it or not.” Everyone applauded enthusiastically to indicate that yes, they would like it very much. He and his piano accompanist played Tchaikovsky’s Melody, to more shrieks and applause. Finally, J. Bell took up the mic again and said “before I break the last hair on my bow, we’d like to play one more piece for you,” and everyone applauded until their hands went numb. I didn’t recognize and don’t remember the name of the composer.

My most undignified moment during the performance was when I wrote a note to Davie asking if Joshua Bell does any composing — then changed “composing” to “composting” and made myself giggle. During the walk back to MIT campus, Davie and I imagined what it would be like to be Joshua Bell’s hairdresser, and wondered aloud whether the superstar violinist has donkey ears that only his hairdresser knows about.

Concert #4: Haydn’s Opus 20 No. 2 in C Major, played by the Rowe’s Lane Quartet

Our 21M.235 professor brought in a professional Baroque period quartet to play Haydn’s Opus 20 No. 2 in C Major (which we had been discussing in class) for us and answer any questions we had. This is the article that inspired the group to form (see the comments section) and here’s a little advertisement from the Handel & Haydn Society.

As usual, I had infinite questions, most of them personal; I like to know how people got where they are. The first violinist started playing the violin in 4th grade, “like any other kid,” and always had an interest in playing period instruments. Her violin was made by William Forster II in 1817 (father and son are described here) and doesn’t have a chin rest because those were invented in 1820. The second violinist plays an instrument made in 2000 (lame!) but which is very exact replica of an instrument from the late 1600s. The cellist was by far the most talkative one of the four (I wonder if there are personality types associated with the different parts of a quartet…) and told us that:

  • She is very picky about her chair. It has to be the right height, and “the worst are the chairs that slope back” because she slides backwards while playing her instrument.
  • In second grade, she wrote “I want to play the cello when I grow up” during an exercise in practicing cursive. “I couldn’t spell it, but that’s what I said.”
  • As fortune would have it, she started playing the cello a few years later.
  • Her cello was made by John Joseph Merlin in 1784. Merlin was Belgian but lived in London, and was a very eccentric character. He patented roller skates, and one time (what came over him?) decided to show off two of his talents at the same time by playing the violin and roller-skating simultaneously. This ended both his violin-playing and roller-skating career.
  • After the cellist published an article about Merlin, she got a call from a museum in northern England (yay England!) letting her know that they had a life-size silver swan music box made by Merlin.
  • Her cello has no endpin, because they didn’t have those back in 1784.

The viola player (viola-ist?) started by saying: “I’m Jenny, and my instrument was made by a nuclear physicists working for the British government.” That got our attention. She went on to say that she originally came to the US and worked for a Japanese chef, because she didn’t want to pursue a career in music. She ended up going back to a conservatory though, and only when she started teaching did she “really understand how to play the instrument.”

I also asked what kinds of annotations they make in their scores. “We all have things that challenge us,” Jenny said. “That informs the annotation.” They also annotate what each other are doing, because they don’t use full scores.

I asked if they have a favorite composer, and apparently that’s like asking a mother who her favorite child is. The viola player (I think it was her?) said that she particularly likes Bach, because “you can play Bach on any instrument.”

While the four women played, I thought about how different this performance was from Joshua Bell’s. Joshua Bell stood on stage while I sat at the back of Symphony Hall. These four played two feet away from me, in an MIT classroom. I will probably never get anywhere close to Joshua Bell’s fancy shmancy Stradivarius, while these four let us touch and even play their instruments. I swooned more during the former, but learned more during the latter.