Jazz Review: MIT Wind Ensemble and Two Clarinet Luminaries Serve Up Something Special

Recipe for a memorable evening at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium: two of the world’s great clarinetists, an inspiring conductor, a hard-working student band, and a major new piece of the clarinet repertoire.

By Steve Mossberg

Clarinetist Evan Ziporyn — a gifted composer in his own right.

Over the past 14 years, music director Frederick Harris, Jr. has ensured that his MIT Wind Ensemble has been a relevant force in the field with a series of commissioned works from major composers. This Saturday night’s performance was not your average student ensemble concert because Don Byron, jazz’s leading clarinetist/composer, was on board with the world premiere of his new 15-minute-long concerto. The other force behind the commission of this substantial work was the evening’s soloist, Evan Ziporyn, a member of MIT’s musical community and one of the new music world’s foremost clarinetists as well as a gifted composer in his own right.

The clarinet concerto repertoire is a small one, and Byron’s work is likely to become a contemporary staple, if only by virtue of his buzz-worthy name alone. Ziporyn’s premiere performance proved that it’s an excellent piece on its own merit. The composer is known (and sometimes derided) for his eclectic scope of musical interests. He was there when Klezmer came back in the ’80s and made recordings full of Yiddish humor. He has worked with highly political spoken word poets, rappers, and metal guitarists. He’s written a slew of chamber and piano music, played funk, straight-ahead, and quite avant-garde jazz. There aren’t many boundaries that have been left uncrossed in Don Byron’s world.

The concerto contains music that reflects many of these musical journeys. The first section was a fast-paced Tarantella with a beautiful melody spiked with dissonant runs from the soloist and mallet percussionist. The solo part, “moto perpetuo,” moves at such a high speed the musician has hardly any rests and/or chances to breathe. Byron executed this challenging section with a sense of humor when the ensemble cut out for the brief cadenza at the movement’s end. The soloist held a long note, took a long-awaited gulp of air, and romped off again before delivering a blistering series of thorny, staccato notes.

Composer and clarinetist Don Byron — Nothing if not eclectic.

The second movement, “Ballade,” found Byron in jazz land, where the wind ensemble took on the feisty character of a big band while backing Ziporyn’s pretty and memorable melodic lines. The composer utilized a drum kit, playing odd-metered Latin and funk rhythms along with low, growly lines that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a Vince Mendoza or Dave Holland chart. The bursts of rhythmically sophisticated percussion cut the sweetness of the main themes and balanced the movement beautifully, ultimately leading to another cadenza, this one feather-light and tuneful.

The third movement, simply titled “Fast Stuff,” took advantage of the now common technique of having half the ensemble clap the rhythm with instruments in their laps. Lovely, ’60s-jazz voicings freshened up the sound of the first theme, steering the piece away from the brink of corniness, while the fast and challenging melody made its way through dense percussive textures to reach an exciting finish. Ziporyn was excellent throughout the piece; strong toned and fleet fingered, he endowed the solo part with all the humor and delicacy it deserved.

Byron’s poly-stylism does not detract from his distinct compositional voice. Unlike so many others, he doesn’t sound hackneyed when combining jazz with other styles, including classical. Before the concerto, he joined Ziporyn and the clarinet section for a performance of his own arrangement of a J. S. Bach violin sonata (March 31 is the composer’s birthday). Byron accented the Baroque melody with Ellingtonian saxophone riffs, yet the effect was stirring rather than tongue-in-cheek or satirical.

The rest of the program consisted of a Mendelssohn overture; the ensemble was more successful in the forte passages than the nuanced, quiet introduction, Four Scottish Dances by Malcom Arnold, and two pieces by a young Charles Ives.

An inspiring example: Frederick Harris Jr. conducts the MIT Wind Ensemble.
Photo: Mark Olson

Ives’s Fugue in C, a very early work, showed a precocious, young composer who was in touch with the fashions in Europe yet was also quickly developing his own ornery style. The ensemble performed the piece quite well, supported by a strong performance on Kresge’s pipe organ. Ives’s juvenile Variations on ‘America,’  though virtuosic in the original form as an organ piece, was everything Byron’s concerto is not—willfully disparate, stilted, and generally in poor taste. Their inclusion on the program suffered next to Byron’s deft, genre-crossing flights.

Along with Byron and Ziporyn, the real star of the night was the MIT Wind Ensemble’s director. The group is clearly a student band in terms of technique, but Harris draws a tremendous amount of passionate music-making and artistry from his less-experienced players. Despite some occasional intonation issues or blurring of phrases, the band plays at a consistently mature, aesthetically engaging level. Harris’s approach to conducting is striking—he evokes emotional content without sacrificing clarity, always eschewing cheap showmanship. Though Harris was humble at the microphone, delegating credit to assistant conductor Kenneth Amis and student leaders, his young musicians are clearly inspired by his example. A group of alumni gladly joined in on the Arnold dances, and the musicians surprised Harris on stage with an impromptu performance of “Rock-a-Bye Baby” (his wife was, in Harris’s words, “very due”).

With the help of its excellent artistic director and the contributions of two clarinet luminaries, the MIT Wind Ensemble gave the Boston audience something special: the premiere of a piece that is going to endure, and a student concert shot through with the joys of learning and making music.

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