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Campus musicians hear preview of new Harbison work

The young musician arrived for his rehearsal in MIT's Killian Hall dressed in casual clothes and sneakers, a shiny white cello case tucked under his arm, sheet music in hand.

His entrance went unnoticed as he quietly made his way through the crowd of MIT students who had gathered there, a few studying oversize musical scores, others searching for empty seats.

But when the young man reached the front of the hall and opened his cello case, he became the center of attention. The instrument he produced was a rare 1733 Montagnana cello from Venice; the sheet music he placed on the music stand was the solo cello part of a brand new concerto written specifically for him by MIT professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison.

The smiling musician was world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

At least three MIT students had noticed his entrance into the hall. Pianists Adrian Childs, a senior, Elaine Chew and Jee Hoon Yap, both graduate students, had been asked by Professor Harbison to accompany Mr. Ma in a rehearsal of the composer's new Cello Concerto. Each student had spent weeks practicing the piano accompaniment to one of the concerto's three movements in preparation for this special session.

The MIT rehearsal gave Mr. Ma an opportunity to practice the concerto with an accompaniment before his first rehearsal with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which will play the world premiere of the piece next week as part of the BSO's 1993-94 season.

But it was also an opportunity for the students to make music with one of the most sought-after musicians of our time. An eight-time Grammy winner known for his musical pairings with such musicians as Emanuel Ax and Isaac Stern, Mr. Ma is acclaimed for his appearances with the world's most eminent conductors and orchestras.

Ms. Chew admitted that she was nervous before the rehearsal, but said that Mr. Ma's comfortable, unintimidating personality helped put her at ease. "His unpretentious, let's-have-fun attitude really helped pull things together," she said. "It was a joy to find that you can actually have fun playing a new piece with unfamiliar collaborators in a stressful, first-time rehearsal."

"Once the rehearsal started, all my apprehensions disappeared," echoed Ms. Yap. "Yo-Yo Ma is good to work with because he really tries to interact with the pianist as an equal, rather than just an accompanist." Ms. Chew and Ms. Yap both study privately with pianist and MIT lecturer David Deveau.

Each student seemed to communicate naturally with the composer and performer through the stop-and-start rehearsal process. At the end of the evening, they received hearty applause from more than 150 fellow MIT music students who had been invited to the event, and generous praise from Professor Harbison and Mr. Ma.

The students had praise for the celebrated MIT composer and teacher as well.

"John was always very supportive and encouraging in the preparation leading up to the rehearsal," said Ms. Chew. "He took time to play the part for me so I would know what he wanted to communicate in the piece. He also did a run-through of the third movement with me, playing the cello part on a second piano, which I found extremely helpful."

But the best part of the preparation, she said, was watching Professor Harbison revise the Cello Concerto as they worked together. "It was an unusual experience for me, watching the piece evolve before my very eyes," she said. "It was also eye-opening to see a usually mild-mannered composer gleefully say, 'Yes! I can add notes when I want to, and I can take away notes when I want to!'"

While he has known Yo-Yo Ma for years, Professor Harbision says that this is the first time they have worked together musically. The concerto was written with Mr. Ma's personality in mind, he says, and is more "soloistic" than his other compositions. "I grew up around lots of cello music," said the composer, whose sister played the instrument. "I knew the standard literature, and I wanted to take off in a different direction."

At one point during the MIT rehearsal, Professor Harbison recalled hearing a neighbor's incessant rap music while he composed, and acknowledged its subliminal influence on a particular syncopated rhythm in the third movement. But he finds it difficult to name other specific influences or inspirations that guided his work on the Cello Concerto. He feels, however, that most composers are influenced consciously or unconsciously by the popular music of their time. "We're in a society where we listen to many things we don't choose to listen to, in restaurants, in airports, everywhere," he explains. "As musicians, we probably absorb much more of this than we suspect."

Professor Harbison, MIT Class of 1949 Professor and the recipient of numerous awards, has had strong ties to the BSO. In addition to having previous works performed by the orchestra, he has been composer-in-residence at Tanglewood, has directed Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music, and has conducted the orchestra.

This time, there's another MIT connection as well: the commission of the Cello Concerto was funded in part by an MIT alumnus, Lee Martin '42, and his wife Geraldine, president of The Martin Foundation. Now residing in Indiana, Mr. Martin, who graduated from MIT with degrees in mechanical engineering, has long had an interest in music.

BSO music director Seiji Ozawa will conduct the BSO performances of the Cello Concerto on Thursday, April 7, at 8pm; Friday, April 8, at 1:30pm; Saturday, April 9, at 8pm, and Tuesday, April 12, at 8pm in Symphony Hall. The program will also include Brahms' Double Concerto, featuring violinist Josef Suk and Yo-Yo Ma, and Mozart's Symphony No. 32.

There will be an open rehearsal of the BSO program on Wednesday, April 6, at 7:30pm in Symphony Hall, with a pre-rehearsal talk at 6:30 pm. The Council for the Arts at MIT is sponsoring a special student excursion to the talk and open rehearsal, with free tickets and transportation. Students may sign up at the Office of the Arts (E15-205) with a $5 reimbursable deposit, one ticket per student ID.

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 27).

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