choir picture


By Bill Cutter

Early History

In 1884, 23 years after the founding of MIT by William Barton Rogers, the Banjo Club and Glee Club are launched and the orchestra appears in the first of many incarnations. (Glee in this context does not refer to the mood of the music or its singers, but to a specific form of English seventeenth and eighteenth century part song known as a glee.) MIT’s student newspaper “The Tech” gave the following accounts of the inaugural performances of our first musical ensembles.

Of the Glee Club, the Tech wrote:

The audience showed its appreciation of the concert by encoring almost every number. The chorus from Fra Diavolo and the guitar solo by Mr. Steele were received with loud applause, but the solo by Mr. LaTrobe, with yodeling by Mr. Krepe, brought down the house….

Much of the success of the evening was due to the excellent management of Mr. Underhill who acted in the capacity of both pianist and conductor. The club is rather weak in first tenors and needs a little more practice, otherwise we think it will compare favorably with the glee clubs of other colleges.

Of the Banjo Club, the Tech pontificates:

With the amount of enthusiasm which has been shown in musical matters this term, it seems that the attempt to form a Banjo Club ought to be a successful one. The advantages of such a club to the Institute we have spoken of before, and will not bring up again; but we would advise the club to have a more careful organization…so as to avoid numerous errors. Only those men should be admitted who have proved themselves competent players to a committee chosen for that object and a small admission fee should be charged, so that the club can pay its expenses as it goes, and not run up a bill.

Of the Orchestra, the Tech warns that Handel’s “Largo” may be “too heavy” a diet for the orchestra:

The men who are in the orchestra must realize that time for practice is short and precious, and they should make up their minds that if they are to accomplish anything at all, it will be only by doing their best at rehearsals—there must be no cutting, and no fooling when present.

We are sorry to know that the music selected for this year is to be all a heavy character. The “Largo” is all right in its place, but what the orchestra needs to do first is to “feel” each other, and to be able to play together. Light, popular dance music will accomplish this quicker than anything else.

A year later, both the orchestra and the banjo club were disbanded for lack of support. In 1890 the Banjo Club was revived and a Mandolin Club was added.

The three musical clubs: Glee Club, Banjo Club, and the Mandolin Club were then united in the “Combined Musical Clubs”. From 1890 to 1900 these clubs also represented the main aspect of music at MIT, until 1920, when a jazz band was added. The membership varied between 14 and 21 men in the Glee Club; between 8 and 14 in the Banjo Club (which on occasion included guitars) and between 4 and 11 in the Mandolin Club. There were also a few chamber ensembles active during this time including a piano quintet, a string quartet, and a piano septet.

A typical program of the Combined Musical Clubs contained soloists, a minstrel show, and the usual novelty acts of yodeling and whistling. In 1910, the three clubs set out on their first major concert tour which took them to Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, Rochester and New York City.

The novelty acts seemed to capture the imaginations of the critics around the country and of a few of these acts, the critics reported:

P.C. Davidson, class of ’24, amused the gathering by playing both a banjo and the cornet at the same time. This difficult feat was accomplished by the aid of a mechanical hand which enabled him to play the banjo with his foot. He fingered the banjo with his left hand and the cornet with his right.

An unusual mode of entertainment was employed at the Combined Musical Clubs smoker Friday evening when those in charge of the entertainment surprised the assembly by presenting an attractive young lady, who performed for the clubs by giving a ballet dance and an exhibition on the violin. A surprise had been promised the men of the clubs and received great applause when revealed.

The dancing girl appeared first as a Russian Girl in red boots and a red coat trimmed with white fur. After executing a Cossack dance, she retired to change her costume, returning in a green ballet dress. She danced once and then rendered a classical selection on the violin concluding her recital by dancing and playing the violin at the same time.

The non-musical benefits of the Musical Clubs were stressed in a kind of recruitment ad which appeared in the Tech in 1925:

Perhaps one of the greatest desires of the clubs is to get some entirely new and original specialty numbers for their concert program. Any freshmen who can perform on any kind of foreign instrument, whether national or merely odd, or any men who can exhibit clever dancing or any extraordinary stage tricks will be urgently sought by the clubs.

The social advantages of the clubs are unequalled by any other organizations at the Institute. Besides getting to know the many men in the clubs intimately, the travels of the clubs to their various concerts make it possible to meet a wide range of people from inmates of girls’ finishing schools to the business men of Boston.

The roaring twenties saw creation of bigger (if not better) musical programs at MIT including the birth of a new orchestra with 31 members in 1920 and 50 members in 1921. However, following a longstanding tradition, the orchestra expired after two years.

In 1923, through the initiative of one S.H. Townsend, a Choral Society (like the Glee Club, a men’s chorus but whose purpose was neither too lowbrow nor too highbrow) came into being and lasted for two years.

The Society was favorably reviewed in the Boston Transcript:

Those who think it a pity that the old-time college glee club, with its simple minded repertory, should be altogether supplanted by the newer type of collegiate singing society braving even the intricacies of Palestrina, Milhaud, and Gustav Holst, should approve conditions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

However, in 1925, the Choral Society disbanded and an attempt was made to revive it by offering a course in choral singing. The idea of the educational value of music—to the extent that credit should be offered, the sense for quality and the idea of learning through doing, were expressed beautifully by Stephen S. Townsend in a letter to the Tech in the April issue of 1925. The following is a short excerpt from that letter:

To the Editor:

I have been asked for my estimate of the course in choral singing which has been among the general studies given during the past year. Personally, I see nothing in its results but grounds for definite optimism.

The love of singing is almost as universal as the religious instinct. It finds expression in many ways and many times, because of a fatal self-consciousness, its normal expression is rigidly suppressed. I have felt that to bring a group of men together, to give them music of sound quality and historic significance, to make for them an opportunity to sing this music, thereby learning it as it can be learned in no other way, was to define a program of definite educational merit.

Most cordially yours,

S.S. Townsend

The most important innovation of the twenties was that it became customary to employ expert “coaches” for the various groups. These individuals were older and more experienced men who functioned both as conductors and as the person responsible for choosing the repertoire of the ensemble.

Those first “coaches” included Doc Eisenberg who was a graduate of MIT and of the Harvard Medical School. After studying medicine for six years he went abroad and studied music as well as medicine. At the time he agreed to coach the jazz band at MIT, he had already become known as one of Boston’s most famous dance orchestra leaders.

The first formal concert program at MIT, that is to say, a program containing no novelty acts, no magicians, and no yodeling, occurred in 1926 and included music of Porpora, Beethoven, piano music of Schumann, and a trio of Cesar Franck. Another chamber music program in the same year introduced harpsichord music to MIT students. (Only thirty years later, in 1956, did MIT purchase its own harpsichord—from a fund accumulated through parking fines!)

The most farsighted suggestion of the twenties appeared as an editorial in the Tech on January 8, 1926—a fervent plea for an auditorium. Up to this point, Walker Memorial served as a dining hall, a concert hall, and the site of commencement ceremonies where it was reported to have “filled up to an uncomfortable extent.”

Kresge Auditorium would not become a reality until 1955, 29 years later!! Funny that we’re currently in the same predicament. We’ve been waiting for a new rehearsal facility for the performing ensembles at MIT since 1976. Odd that some wheels of progress turn extremely slowly at MIT.

The 1930s

A tremendous change in the musical activities at MIT occurred in the thirties.

Among the reasons were better and sustained leadership, re-organization, and initiative shown for the first time by the faculty and dormitory committee.

While the programs between 1883 and 1930 hardly change, the difference between programs of 1932 and 1933 are stunning.

In a program dated April of 1932 there is the usual hodge podge of choral, solo, banjo, piano, and instrumental music, concluding the concert with school songs. One year later, the Glee Club presented their own program which included works of Bach, Palestrina, Monteverdi and Carissimi. The Instrumental Club, now called the MIT Little Symphony offered a Mozart symphony, a Beethoven Overture, and the Blue Danube Waltz of Strauss.

The latter programs were Sunday afternoon concerts and were followed by a social where tea was served. These concerts became very popular with students and faculty alike. Occasionally, there were spoken program notes given by a faculty member from the New England Conservatory which explained the compositions to the audience and gave a number of historical facts about the composers.

In 1934, combined concerts with the Wellesley Choir (an all female college) were introduced and this became an annual event. In 1936, Metropolitan Opera soprano Eleanor Steber was guest soloist on an MIT choral program. Ms. Steber sang the “Waltz” from Romeo and Juliet by Gounoud; Debussy’s “Beau Soir”, and Frank La Forge’s “Song of the Open”. The MIT Glee Club was conducted by William Ellis Weston, who had dedicated fifteen years to the improvement and success of the Glee Club—the only musical club to exist without interruption since 1883.

The MIT Orchestra’s first bona fide conductor appeared in 1937. Jacques Hoffman had been a member of the Boston Symphony and his first program with the MIT Orchestra had as soloist the brilliant first horn player of the BSO, Willem Valkenier. The program included Haydn’s 6th symphony; Mozart’s Concerto for Horn; and Tchaikowsky’s “Swan Lake”.

The high quality of all of the music programs continued thereafter with spectacularly large numbers of singers and an impressive list of prestigious guest soloists.

In 1939, the Glee Club appeared for the first time at “Tech Night at the POPS”, a tradition which continued until 1956. The POPS are the Boston POPS orchestra, now conducted by Keith Lockhart but brought to international recognition by Arthur Fiedler who invented a for orchestral concerts which is still used as a model today. The concerts typically began with light classics and conclude with arrangements of popular music of the day . The Glee Club also began the tradition of joining with women’s colleges to enable both groups to explore the rich and more plentiful mixed chorus repertory. Schools such as Colby College, Wellesley College and Simmons College were among the collaborators.

The Klaus Liepmann Years

The year 1946 saw the formation of the Women’s Glee Club at MIT which combined with the Men’s Glee Club to perform Handel’s Messiah with the MIT Symphony Orchestra. Yet, during this flurry of exciting musical developments, there was one casualty. After 52 years of uninterrupted existence, the Banjo Club expired.

1947 was a watershed year for Music at MIT with the arrival of Klaus Liepmann, MIT’s first first full-time professor of music and the founder of MIT’s music program.

In true MIT tradition, the orchestra members took the initiative to approach the Dean of Students with the request to make Liepmann’s association with music at MIT permanent. The following is an excerpt from an account of the conditions set down by MIT’s president and several deans which led to Mr. Liepmann’s acceptance of MIT’s offer to become Director and Professor of Music.

  1. Some of the most important education takes place outside of the curriculum. We believe that extracurricular activities should have educational as well as recreational value

  2. Our students are used to ‘interacting with’ experts in Aeronautics, Physics, Mathematics, etc—the least we can do is to provide them with professional leadership in music as well.

  3. We find that our graduates are frequently deficient in matters of a “liberal education”. We should improve our program in general education and we consider music an important part of it.

Mr. Liepmann was born in Kiel, Germany, in 1907. After attending grammar school there until 1919 he went to Hamburg, where for the next six years he attended high school, received private instruction in violin, viola, and piano; and studied ensemble playing at the Hamburg Conservatory of Music. He continued his studies for five more years at the Academy of Music in Cologne, then in 1931 he became concertmaster of the Berlin University Orchestra and Director of Hamburg University concerts. After coming to this country in 1933 Mr. Liepmann took several positions in the New York City school system. He came to Yale University in 1936 for further study and research, and from 1939 to 1944 he directed the Yale Symphony Orchestra and conducted ensembles. During the latter part of the war he was Music Advisor of the Army’s First Service Command, in which capacity he supervised music education and recreation in all Army camps and hospitals in New England. Professor Liepmann is the author of “The Language of Music”.

From what I have read about Klaus, he was a passionate champion of music education and a teacher who truly understood and valued the unique qualities of MIT students. Of MIT musicians, Mr. Liepmann wrote, “You will never believe how much enthusiasm, talent and skill exist among young Americans, especially among those whose mental curiosity and searching minds drive them to study science and engineering, until you have given them opportunities to make music in their free time.”

Liepmann also understood that what these young players and singers may “lack in technical proficiency, they will compensate with their power of concentration, their ready grasp of structural points, and above all, with their unbounded enthusiasm.”

Some of the many innovations and highlights of Maestro Liepmann’s tenure include:

  • The hiring of “ringers” and professional soloists—for as Mr. Liepmann notes—“what could be more inspiring for an orchestra than to collaborate with the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony in a performance of the Beethoven violin concerto as happened in 1968.” He continues by saying, “when it comes to soloists, everybody knows the excruciating experience when a well-meaning amateur is let loose on ‘Why do the nations…’ from Messiah. Solo arias and recitatives should under no circumstances be entrusted to untrained voices. This would expose the composer, the audience and the singers to a great number of unfair hazards and indignities.”

  • Liepmann also believed that the occasional mixing of professionals (known as ringers) with amateurs produced the happy union of common sense and average human aspirations with examples of highest personal perfection.

  • Liepmann hired additional music faculty including John Corley, who was founder and conductor of the MIT Concert Band, a position he held for 50 years! This group was formed to solve the problem created by a surplus of wind players.

The MIT Choral Society, which began with 16 singers and who met at Liepmann’s home, grew rapidly under the enthusiasm of its new maestro. The repertoire began to include major works of the choral/orchestral repertoire. Works such as Handel’s Judas Maccabeus; Mendelssohn’s Elijah; Bach’s cantatas and Haydn’s Creation, all accompanied by the MIT Symphony began to find their way into the hearts and minds of MIT students. In 1952, a performance of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem set a new standard of excellence.

The Choral Society performed with a chamber orchestra made up of players from the Boston Symphony with soloists Helen Boatwright and Paul Matthen. Other notable soloists who graced the performances of the MIT Choral Society included New York City Opera and Boston native contralto Eunice Alberts as well as Wellesley college graduate and New York City Opera soprano Phyllis Curtin.

The late 50’s also saw the creation of Course 21 (aka, Humanities—at MIT, all major disciplines and buildings are identified by number) This was a huge step in the history of MIT demonstrating the Institute’s commitment to expanding its course offerings beyond technical, mathematical and scientific studies affording our students a more well-rounded education.

In 1955, Kresge Auditorium at MIT (the long-awaited and still the only major performance space at MIT) was dedicated in a gala ceremony which included the world premiere of Aaron Copland’s “Canticle of Freedom” which was commissioned for the occasion by the Choral Society. It is a bit embarrassing to report that in a letter to his dear friends, the Fines, Copland wrote of a rehearsal of his new work—“I dashed up (to Boston) one evening to hear a rehearsal (of my Canticle) and (between us) despaired of Liepmann getting any results out of those forces. I wish I could hear it performed properly.”

Mr Liepmann recalls memorable performances with members of the Boston Symphony of the Verdi Requiem and Bartok’s Cantata Profana in particular. Additional contemporary music presented were works of Hindemith, Ives, Honegger, Messiaen, and Randall Thompson.

The Choral Society also began to be regular contributors to MIT festive occasions such as the centennial in 1961 and the inaugurations of four MIT presidents.

Klaus initiated the first concert trips to Europe with the chorus traveling to Germany, England, Paris and Brussels. Liepmann tells us that “the underlying thought was that long before anyone had even thought of a Peace Corps, here was a chance to communicate through the arts with the European countries.”

Some of the most noteworthy performances included concerts with students of the Paris Conservatory, and with the student orchestras with the University of Bonn, the Technological Institute of Darmstadt, and the student orchestra of the Academy of Music in Berlin. Liepmann was proud of the fact that American and European students could come together to perform great music of a common inheritance while during the same time discussing the problems of their age and the future of mankind.

Of one particularly touching moment during one of their tours, Liepmann recounts “a rehearsal was held in a school building in the center of Frankfurt which still bore excruciating testimony of the bombings of the recent war. We rehearsed a Haydn Mass with the windows open, because if was July. At the “dona nobis pacem” (give us peace) all the windows in the narrow Frankfurt streets filled with people. The streets also began to fill with curious and astonished and still frightened people—the Americans were singing “dona nobis pacem” in Germany and with the music of the great Joseph Haydn.

On another trip, Liepmann tells of one passport and all of the choirs’ railway tickets going missing. “Have you ever tried to smuggle a 7 foot tall American into Germany, Belgium, and France without a passport…or 65 American singers in and out of the railroad stations of Germany without railway tickets?” Apparently, he did.

In 1962, on the Choral Society’s third trip to Europe the chorus donated its concert proceeds for the reconstruction of the famous St. Peter Mancroft Cathedral in Norwich, England. The church was in the process of repair and filled with scaffolding reaching high up into the spire. When a curious MIT student of architecture climbed the scaffolding despite the interdiction posted everywhere, the Deacon of the church greeted him upon his return to terra firma with the words, “young man, this is the closest to God you will ever be.”

At a concert in Berlin, the guest orchestra were no less than the wind players of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. The beginning of the program consisted of acappella music of Aaron Copland, Finney, and Bach. Liepmann had to stop the program when he heard the philharmonic players warming up in the basement of the hall. Klaus turned to the audience and said “not everybody is in a position to hush the Berlin Philharmonic.”

Maestro Liepmann also initiated the Spring Festivals of Music at MIT in 1962. This series was inspired by an anonymous American benefactor who said “If they delight European audiences, why should they not be featured in America?” The Choral Society shared honors with the Glee Club, the orchestra, the band, the jazz orchestra, and the Logarhythms (one of MIT’s student-run all male acappella groups) In these concerts, Randall Thompson conducted the Concert Band and the Glee Club in his “Testament of Freedom”. Wellesley College joined the MIT Glee Club in a performance of Purcell’s “Fairy Queen” and Vassar and MIT presented the first American performance of Haydn’s only opera seria, “Orfeo”. When 65 members of the Boston Symphony joined the Glee Club of MIT and Douglass College in a performance of “The Seasons” by Haydn, the orchestra players reveled in the delightful music which had not been played by the BSO in 39 years! At the musicians suggestion, Mr. Leinsdorf re-instated the piece soon after into the repertory.

In 1965, during the third MIT Spring Festival, the Choral Society together with with the Mount Holyoke Glee Club joined in a memorable performance of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” and later combined with the Sarah Lawrence Choir in a presentation of Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and with the Smith College Choir, a performance of Milhaud’s “Les Choephores”.

In 1971, the Glee Club together with the Douglass College Choir and the Haydn Orchestra of New York and three prominent soloists gave a performance of Haydn’s “The Seasons” in Lincoln Centers Alice Tully Hall in New York City.

The occasion was the Music Festival in honor of Dr. and Mrs. James R. Killian.

Liepmann retired in 1972 and programmed Bach’s “St. John Passion” as a final farewell to his beloved MIT musicians.

The following is a letter Professor Liepmann addressed to the Tech Talk in 1990. The letter speaks for itself of the delightful qualities of this extraordinary man. It begins with the heading “De Profundis”.

Two days ago our PO Box in Westport contained a letter from the Alumni Association of MIT addressed ‘to the family of Prof. Klaus Liepmann.’ It began, ‘We recently received notification of the death of Prof. Klaus Liepmann. Please accept our sincere condolences.’

A day earlier, a letter by a professor of German at the Albany State University of New York was forwarded to me by the MIT office of personnel. It seems the professor is preparing a book about former German-speaking emigrees with reports and materials that document their life and activities. The professor, whose name was new to me, added, ‘I am assuming that he is probably no longer alive, but there may be members of the family’ etc.

When I called the Alumni Office and asked from whom they received notification of my death, they said they did not know, but that they received a check for MIT from an alumnus ‘in memory of Prof. Klaus Liepmann.’ I assume that money doesn’t lie—so it must be true. Never mind the amount of the check—suffice it to say that it was more than $25 and less than $1 million.

However, at the risk of interrupting a further flow of money to MIT, I declare hereby to my friends and enemies and to the Pension Office of MIT that I am at the moment alive and kicking and that as Mark Twain would say, the notices of my death are exaggerated.

That letter of the Alumni Association asks my family for data and an obituary ‘so that caring classmates can be informed.’ They have no data and there are no caring classmates—because I am not an alumnus of MIT. However, just in case: the News Office has more data about me than anyone ever wants to have, including a curriculum vitae which I wrote myself and which would make a nice obituary.

And finally—I suppose as a sort of consolation prize—they offer my family ‘a complimentary subscription to Technology Review.’ It is said that those who are falsely accused of death may expect a long life. Under those circumstances, a complimentary subscription to Technology Review might come in handy.

Elsewhere in the Music Department

The 1950’s saw even more luminaries join the music faculty at MIT or serve as artists-in-residence. One of the first such artists was jazz trumpeter Herb Pomeroy.

Herb Pomeroy still remembers the day in March 1963 when the distress call came from MIT. It was the late Professor Klaus Leipman, founder of MIT’s music program, saying in his thick German accent, “We have a jazz band here that is so bad…we don’t want them representing MIT.” Professor Leipman said he had suggested to the members of the Techtonians, then a student-led jazz band, that they either disband or get someone to “upgrade” them. “Your name was the one that they asked for first,” Professor Leipman told Mr. Pomeroy.

At age 33, Mr. Pomeroy was already well into a successful career as a jazz trumpeter, arranger, composer, leader of his own big band and member of the jazz faculty at Berklee College of Music. But he agreed to rehearse the group for the remaining six rehearsals in the semester—for $30 a rehearsal—and then decide if he wanted to stay.

Thus marked the beginning of a 22-year career at MIT for Mr. Pomeroy, who went on to found the Institute’s award-winning Festival Jazz Ensemble (FJE) and develop it into one of the country’s top collegiate jazz bands. From 1963-85, Mr. Pomeroy led the FJE to national acclaim through performances and festival appearances in New England, the Midwest and at Switzerland’s prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival, brought dozens of specially commissioned compositions into the FJE’s library, and paved the way for the enthusiastic continuation and development of jazz ensembles at MIT.

In 1966, David Epstein joined the faculty and took over responsibility of conducting the MIT Symphony. Dr. Epstein expanded MITSO’s audience by mixing new and rarely heard works with those of major composers in the same program, engaging professional and student soloists, and planning and leading tours throughout the United States and abroad. He wrote insightful listener notes and embarked on an ambitious commercial recording venture with the orchestra, which has preserved on the VOX label more than a decade of its finest performances. Due primarily to his drive to raise its artistic goals and standards, the orchestra became the first co-curricular performing ensemble through which MIT students could earn study credit toward a degree.

“David Epstein’s contribution to the vitality of music making at MIT is broad and deep,” said Professor Marcus A. Thompson, a violist who collaborated frequently with Dr., Epstein. He noted that Dr. Epstein’s “scholarly inquiry” into structure, tempo and articulation provided guidance for performers to make better interpretive decisions. “Some of this inquiry grew out of the obvious pleasure he took in teaching as well as learning from students and colleagues in the MIT scientific community,” Thompson said.

A 1952 graduate of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Dr. Epstein had graduate degrees from the New England Conservatory, Brandeis University and Princeton University. He received a Ph.D from Princeton in 1968. His farewell concert was a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the MIT Concert Choir and professional soloists.

In 1968, important American composer Elliot Carter was visiting composer and humanities professor. The 70’s saw the addition of other world-class musicians to its faculty including Pulitzer prize-winning composer John Harbison; concert violist Marcus Thompson; and Jeanne Bamberger, whose research in music cognition is interdisciplinary: integrating music theory and practice, modes of representation, and recent approaches to cognitive development. Professor Bamberger’s work focuses on close analysis of children and adults in moments of spontaneous learning. Professor Bamberger, was a student of Artur Schnabel and Roger Sessions, performed extensively in the US and Europe as piano soloist and in chamber music ensembles. She attended Columbia University and the University of California at Berkeley receiving degrees in philosophy and music theory. Her books include “The mind behind the musical ear (1995), and “Developing musical intuitions”.

Mr. Harbison is one of America’s most prominent composers. Among his principal works are three string quartets, three symphonies, two operas, and the cantata The Flight Into Egypt, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. The Metropolitan Opera premiered his opera The Great Gatsby, in December 1999.

Harbison’s music is distinguished by its exceptional resourcefulness and expressive range. He has written for every conceivable type of concert performance, ranging from the grandest to the most intimate, pieces that embrace jazz along with the pre-classical forms of Schütz and Bach, the graceful tonality of Prokofiev, and the rigorous atonal methods of the late Stravinsky. He is also a gifted commentator on the art and craft of composition and was recognized in his student years as an outstanding poet. (He has written his own libretto for Gatsby.) Today, he continues to convey, through the spoken word, the multiple meanings of contemporary composition.

Mr. Harbison regularly lends his gifts as a teacher to the upper level composition classes and to the Chamber Music program where he is a coach.

Marcus Thompson, violist, has appeared as soloist, recitalist, and in chamber music series throughout the Americas, Europe, and the Far East. He has been a soloist with the orchestras of Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Saint Louis; The National Symphony, the Boston Pops and the Czech National Symphony in Prague. He performed the West Coast Premiere of the Harbison Viola Concerto with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; the Chicago Premiere with the Chicago Sinfonietta, and recently gave the Boston Premiere with the New England Conservatory Honors Orchestra. In recent seasons he has received critical acclaim for performances of the Penderecki Viola Concerto with the MIT Symphony Orchestra in Boston, and in London.

Mr. Thompson earned the doctorate degree at The Juilliard School and is currently the Robert R. Taylor Professor of Music, heading programs in chamber music and performance studies at MIT. He is a member of the viola faculty at New England Conservatory of Music and violist of the Boston Chamber Music Society.

Pianist David Deveau joined the music faculty of the MIT in 1988, and was appointed Senior Lecturer in 1995. He has also served on the piano faculties of the Boston Conservatory, Carnegie Mellon University, and Boston University.

Deveau has earned enthusiastic praise from major publications including the New York Times (“revealing virtuosity…a deeply thoughtful, artistic personality with a most supple, fluent technique”), The Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, The American Record Guide, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

His major orchestral engagements over the last two decades include performances with the Boston Symphony, Boston Pops, San Francisco Symphony, and Minnesota Orchestra, as well as with the Houston, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Pacific Symphony Orchestras. He has also been soloist with the Juilliard, New England Conservatory and Carnegie Mellon Philharmonic Orchestras, collaborating with such composer-conductors as John Harbison, Oliver Knussen and Gunther Schuller.

David Deveau is co-director with Marcus Thompson of the Advanced Music Performance Seminar which offers approximately fifty scholarships and fellowships annually for private lesson study to MIT students based on competitive auditions that are held once a year at the beginning of the fall term. The Emerson Music Performance program is funded largely by a generous donation from Mr. Cherry L. Emerson (SM, 1941) who remains a strong supporter of the arts at MIT. The program is intended to assure the continued growth of the individual and to encourage participation in the MIT musical community of the most accomplished student musicians. Scholarship and fellowship offers are made to those whose skill and potential are recognized at the time of the audition.

John Oliver and the MIT Concert Choir

John Oliver joined the faculty at MIT and worked with Liepmann conducting the Glee Club and Choral Society in 1964. At the time of Liepmann’s retirement in 1972, Mr. Oliver had recently (1970) organized the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the official chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

When the baton was passed to John Oliver, the members of the Choral Society were a mix of students, faculty, staff, and friends of MIT with a typical membership of one hundred singers whose mission remained to learn and perform major works of the choral/orchestral repertoire.

During Oliver’s tenure, more and more students were interested in being a part of this excellent choral ensemble. It became apparent that either more rigorous audition criteria were needed to control the size and quality of the group; or that it would be possible to populate this symphonic-sized chorus entirely with students. Oliver eventually made the difficult decision to limit membership to MIT students.

The 90’s were truly the golden years for the Concert Choir. With an annual operating budget of over $40,000, the choir was able to take on a major work with professional orchestra and soloists each semester. Programs included the usual St. Matthew Passion of Bach, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, as well as lesser known works such as Flos campi of Vaughn Williams; Der Erste Walpurgisnacht of Mendelssohn, and Canti di prigionia, of Dallapiccola. One particularly ambitious programs included not only the devilishly difficult “Les noces” of Stravinsky, but also Chinese Folk Songs, by Bright Sheng.

The MIT Chamber Choir

Seeing the need for an even higher level of music-making to challenge the evermore talented and ambitious incoming students, Maestro Oliver also formed the MIT Chamber Choir whose mission it was to perform significant works of the acappella repertoire along with smaller choral works requiring instrumental accompaniment and particularly Bach cantatas. This smaller, more select ensemble also served the purpose of creating solo opportunities for the more advanced student singers who seem to be more plentiful with each passing year. On more than one occasion I heard Maestro Oliver marvel over the technical facility of a young MIT singer—often a totally untrained singer who just happened to possess the facility to negotiate difficult melismatic Baroque passages. He would often remark that “they have no idea how hard this is…and they’re probably better off.”

All the while Oliver was building choral music at MIT he continued his professional association with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and his own chorus the John Oliver Chorale. When asked to compare his work with the two very different worlds of professional and student music-making he replied, “the MIT sound is younger. You don’t get the depth of sonority that you find in the professional [singer] which is dark and rich. It is a younger, cleaner, airier sound. It’s beautiful.”

Bill Cutter

John went through many accompanists during his time at MIT—one would become the chorus master of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus—until I came onto the scene in 1990. John and I met by chance at Tanglewood when I was asked to accompany a masterclass he would be doing with the Young Artists Chorus of the Tanglewood Institute. The work to be rehearsed was Britten’s “Cantata Academica”. At the conclusion of a very inspiring and fast-paced rehearsal (typical for John Oliver) the maestro asked me if I would be interested in accompanying the choirs at MIT. I was delighted to be asked and agreed to do an audition with him later that week which would involve playing solo repertoire, sight-reading, and open-score reading. I passed the audition and began as John’s assistant in the Fall of 1990.

It was here that I witnessed first hand the masterful rehearsal techniques that John employed no matter what the level of the chorus. He firmly believed that there was no magic to reading music. You simply have to do it…and do it often…and you must read everything at tempo…even the very first read-thru.

It was incredible to witness this group of bright young non-musicians display their powers of focus as they attempted to tackle even the most complex of Bach fugues or the most dense harmonies of Poulenc. It didn’t matter to John that there was very little actual sound during this first read-thru. He knew that these probing minds, while not realizing the pitches and rhythms with any accuracy whatsoever, were appreciating every clever compositional device that passed by their analytical eyes. He was fond of exclaiming “Perfect!” at the conclusion of our first disastrous rendition which never failed to elicit many guffaws and chuckles from the choristers.

Dante Anzolini and MITSO

Succeeding David Epstein’s thirty-three year career as conductor of the MIT Symphony was Yale-educated conductor, Dante Anzolini.

Dante Anzolini has conducted with great success in Europe, North and South America. His broad repertoire encompasses most major works from the symphonic and operatic repertoire as well as 20th and 21st century works. He is a strong advocate of new music and young composers, and has conducted numerous world-premieres of operatic and symphonic works. In addition to his work with the MIT Symphony, Anzolini is Music Director of the Orchestra of the Teatro Argentino Opera Theater, in La Plata, Argentina.

The first European tour in MITSO’s history took place in May 2000 under Anzolini’s direction. The orchestra presented four highly acclaimed performances in important venues in Prague, Brno (Czech Republic), Budapest and Vienna. A performance in Prague’s National House, arranged by special invitation from the Czech Nuclear Society, honored ten years of Czech-American nuclear cooperation and symbolized Czech-American friendship. The event was part of a formal celebration naming Prague as the Principal Cultural Capital of Europe in the millenial year.

The MIT Symphony Orchestra undertook a second European in May of 2002. MITSO performed at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge (England), at St. John’s, Smith Square in London and at the principal venue of the Bath International Music Festival. The tour concert program featured MIT Professor Peter Child’s Jubal, Penderecki’s Viola Concerto with MIT Professor Marcus Thompson as soloist, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. This highly successful tour was sponsored in part by the Cambridge-MIT Institute.

Fred Harris and the MIT Concert Band

Succeeding the fifty year tenure of John Corley as conductor of the MIT Concert Band is Frederick Harris. One of Dr. Harris’s first mission was to expand the repertoire of the Concert Band with forays into wind chamber music and more symphonic wind repertoire. Harris also took charge of the Festival Jazz Ensemble thereby creating a more consistent and unified mission as well as higher standards for the various diverse wind groups.

In a recent interview with Jazziz Magazine, Frederick Harris, director of wind ensembles since 1990 said: “At MIT everything is taught through a hands-on approach… These students are building robots, doing internships at NASA, and so on. When they take on a subject like jazz, they want to get their hands dirty right away. And they want to work at the highest level possible.”

To commemorate the 80th birthday of Gunther Schuller, world-renowned composer, conductor and advocate of jazz and classical music, the MIT Wind Ensemble honored the composer with a concert which highlighted his advocacy for other musicians.

The recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for composition, Schuller became a leader in a new style of music, said Frederick Harris, music director of the ensemble.

“He is a huge proponent of taking jazz and classical and fusing them together,” he said, noting that Schuller is known for this “Third Stream” style. “It was a term he coined describing the respectful co-existence of the stream of classical music with the stream of jazz music creating a ‘third stream’—a fusion of the two.”

The MIT Wind Ensemble will showcase both the classical and the jazz elements of Schuller’s work, but will perform only one piece that he composed, “Blue Dawn Into White Heat.”

Fred earned a Master of Music Degree from New England Conservatory and his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. His teachers included Frank Battisti and, Gunther Schuller. Dr. Harris was a conducting student at The Schweitzer Institute of Music at the Festival at Sandpoint and an auditor of the Tanglewood Music Center conducting program. As the first recipient of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute Frank L. Battisti Conducting Award Residency, he served as the assistant conductor of the 2001 Young Artist Wind Ensemble. During the summer of 2002 he served as Co-coordinator of the Boston University Young Artists Wind Ensemble at Tanglewood and again as assistant conductor.

Expanding Horizons

One of the most recent trends, not only at MIT, but across the US, is a keen interest in world music. MIT responded to the natural curiosity of our students to explore this music by adding three distinguished ethnomusicologists to our music faculty.

Gamelan Galak Tika, directed by Evan Ziporyn, is the Boston area’s first Balinese gamelan. A community ensemble in residence at MIT, Galak Tika was founded in September 1993 for the purpose of studying and performing both traditional and modern Balinese music and dance, as well as to develop new works in collaboration with Balinese and American artists. Evan Ziporyn is the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music with degrees from UC Berkeley. He is a composer/clarinetist whose work draws equally from world and classical music, the avant garde, and jazz. As a member of the Bang On A Can All-stars, he has performed at international venues across the globe, including Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, London’s South Bank Center, the Holland Festival, Australia’s Adelaide Festival, and the Warsaw Festival.

Rambax MIT, directed by assistant professor Patricia Tang, is a performance ensemble that focuses on the sabar drumming and dance traditions of Senegal. Dr. Tang is a graduate of Harvard University and is an ethnomusicologist specializing in West African music. Having conducted research among Wolof griot percussionists in Senegal, she studied sabar (Wolof drum) with Lamine Touré and members of the ensemble, Group Rimbax.

George Ruckert is a Senior Lecturer in Music with a Ph.D in Ethnomusicology from UC Berkeley. After receiving a master’s in western theory and composition, he became a student of the renowned Indian sarodist, Ali Akbar Khan in 1967. A co-founder and administrator of this master’s important center for North Indian classical music in California.

The Current Music “Section”

Choral Programs

Upon the retirement of John Oliver, I was appointed Director of Choral Programs at MIT in 1996. 10 years later I am happy to report that the choral program continues to attract energetic and talented singers who make me incredibly proud to stand in front of them and make music together. We have weathered diminishing funding by finding creative ways to program and collaborate with MIT ensembles, local universities (including Tufts, Brandeis, Brown, and Wellesley) and most recently with the University of Lausanne…our first international collaboration.

We are particularly proud of the fact that we have premiered new works of our own John Harbison as well as faculty members Edward Cohen, Charles Shadle and myself. We have enjoyed collaborations with the MIT Symphony, particularly in our performance of Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy for the 50th Anniversary of Humanities at MIT. There were also wonderful performances of Ralph Vaughn Williams “Dona nobis pacem”, Purcell’s “Come ye Sons of Art”, and Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”. I have fond memories of our first European tour in 1999 which took the choir to Budapest and Vienna singing the music of Brahms, Schumann, and American colonial composer William Billings.

Under my direction, the MIT Chamber Choir performed its first full production of the opera “Dido and Aeneas” collaborating with the talented faculty of the Theater section. We also premiered the first choral drama of American composer Libby Larsen. Most recently, the Chamber Choir offered their first evening of opera scenes and choruses under the directorial guidance of Theater Arts faculty member, Michael Oulette.

The Music Section

Today, the Music Section, as it is known, is thriving with the number of students participating in both performing ensembles and music courses at an all-time high. We offer introductory, history/literature, theory/composition, performance, world music, special topics, and media courses as part of a curriculum that is the envy of some conservatories of music. In fact, the first level of our Harmony and Counterpoint class is regularly oversubscribed (we currently have four sections of 25 students each) and our music history classes now regularly offer such specialized and intriguing topics as “Shakespeare at the Opera” and “Folk music of the British Isles”. There is no shortage of innovation and enthusiasm for the work of our department and we delight in having the largest enrollment of all of the humanities departments.

I know that the entire music faculty would agree that we feel extremely fortunate to be sharing our passion for good music with students who truly understand that music is for the heart, the mind, and the soul.