in: Reviews

November 23, 2009

Boston Music Viva: Remarkable Variety, Abundant Cleverness

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The format has long become a genre in itself, an economical standard of sonorities and players almost a century old (in 2012!) and the basis of countless groups and commissions. Its flexibility and variety, however, was already a hallmark of ‘daily music’ in public places, with lobby, salon and theater orchestras. Schoenberg’s ironic Brettllieder were scored for soprano, piccolo, trumpet, snare drum, and piano in 1901, a sound more than familiar to cabaret patrons, and the second version of Rhapsody in Blue was scored for pit band by Ferde Grofe in 1925 with cues in each part, so that a recognizable performance was achievable even without a solo piano. For Boston Musica Viva, entering its fifth decade, this format has never been a limitation, and certainly not a compromise. On Friday, November 20, at the Tsai Performance Center, there was a remarkable variety, with many reference points and abundant cleverness.

Joseph Schwantner’s Elixir, from 1974, is a lovely piece with an extended color palette, the musicians doubling outside their fach with glass harmonica effects, bowed crotales and whistling, and abundant use of sympathetic vibrations within the piano; the focus of the piece is the flute, played beautifully by Ann Bobo.

Mikronomicon, a new David Rakowski work written for Geoffrey Burleson on commission from BMV, takes a left turn into jazzy funky noir. The composer and the pianist have history and a complicated Weltanschauung, and the piece chews up the musical landscape with great humor. The reedy melodeon tones taste a little Argentinian, and the register games are a lot of fun. The second movement of this ‘microconcerto’ was inspired by a dream, a haunting falling major 2nd harmonized and re-harmonized 99 times; I went home and put on Mahler 9. And the Scherzo, ‘dirty and intense,’ a funk delirium; both Rakowski and Burleson bring to bear abundant vocabulary from Piazzola and Prokofiev that flies by with great effect.

Chris Arrell’s Narcissus/echo from 2006 received its first Boston performance. For quartet (violin, cello, clarinet and percussion) it reveals a long melody passed and fragmented between the instruments in insistent, regular patterns and counter rhythms, often with ghostly melodic wisps left hanging in the air. A sonic prism, the piece steadily drains itself of color.

For the Ives songs, Richard Pittman devised quite clever and evocative instrumentation much in the tradition of the pit band: the Circus Band entered raucously from the lobby, but Down East wore the delicate cotton dress of a Stephen Foster heroine. Pamela Dellal sang beautifully and evocatively. In Son of a Gambolier and Old Home Day the band’s kazoos and chorus were lively but perhaps too polite: Ives himself singing and crashing through “They Are There” in 1943 set a high standard for rowdiness.

At the end, “Blues” from Bernard Hoffer’s A Boston Cinderella, written as well for BMV, rounded out the evening with familiar music: Richard Pittman is very loyal to his composers, a trait that becomes more crucial as the commissions and performance opportunities accumulate. The drawback of a tradition of premieres is the superficial impression a first performance imposes, a form of speed-dating; even if a piece is performed twice on a concert, one must develop as a listener the questions that will reveal some subcutaneous substance. We need to get comfortable with this repertory as it matures, and as the performers accommodate it, and this program was a great opportunity to do just that.

Conductor, pianist, and composer Eric Culver is music director of the Holy Cross Chamber Orchestra and composer-in-residence of Redfeather Theater, in Worcester.

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