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Harris debuts as MITSO conductor

Frederick Harris conducts the MIT Wind Ensemble.
Frederick Harris conducts the MIT Wind Ensemble.
Photo / G������bor Cs������nyi

Although lecturer Frederick Harris has been a fixture on the MIT music scene since 1999, this week he'll make an important debut. After making his name assuming leadership of the MIT Wind Ensemble and the Festival Jazz Ensemble, he will now wield his baton with the MIT Symphony Orchestra.

Christina Jensen of the Office of the Arts interviewed Harris about his work with MITSO this semester.

Q. You're currently conducting both the MIT Wind Ensemble and the MIT Symphony Orchestra. What's your daily schedule? What are some of the rewards of working with these two ensembles?

A. I arrive at MIT at midmorning each day to deal with all the administrative aspects of conducting two ensembles, to meet with students and to study the literature we're preparing. Monday through Thursday evenings I conduct a rehearsal from 7:30 to 10 p.m., alternating between the wind ensemble and the symphony orchestra.

One reward of conducting both ensembles is the amount of music that it becomes possible to play. An orchestra has the benefit of several hundred years of history behind it; the sheer amount of high-quality music that has been written for that ensemble is overwhelming. And the wind ensemble is one of the great vehicles for new music, but composers have only been seriously writing for it since the 1950s - aside from the few pieces from Mozart, Dvorak and Stravinsky. When I work with both ensembles, the old informs the new and the new informs the old.

Q. What are some of the other differences between a wind ensemble and an orchestra?

A. The basic difference results from the number of players in each. The orchestra is almost twice as large as the wind ensemble, so there are more eyes to connect with. Also, the length of compositions written for these groups is different. For practical reasons, wind ensemble symphonies are generally 30 minutes in length, whereas an orchestra symphony is generally 50 to 70 minutes long.

Q. What do you hope to impart to the students in MITSO through your teaching?

A. I try to bring the most complete knowledge of the music to a rehearsal that I can, and to impart the spirit and feeling of the music to the students. This is coupled with a lot of nuts-and-bolts work on ensemble playing, intonation and technique. Our interaction with the music and one another is what it's all about.

Through our rehearsals and performances, I hope that students in the orchestra learn that an ensemble is made up of individual people who come together to create a whole. It's a family, and our overall success is determined by our interaction with one another and how we interact with the greatest music available. I also hope to impart to the students the qualities of the musical literature we study and some of the history behind its creation.

On Thursday, Dec. 12, Harris leads MITSO in a program of Berlioz's "Roman Carnival Overture," Ibert's "Flute Concerto" (with sophomore Daniel Stein as soloist) and Shostakovich's "Symphony No. 5." The concert is at 8 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium. Admission is $3 at the door. Harris will lead a pre-concert talk about the program at 7:15 p.m.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 11, 2002.

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