in: Reviews

December 2, 2010

Club BMOP’s Alternative Narratives

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Gil Rose presented Boston Modern Opera Project’s first Club Concert of the season on Monday evening, November 29. These evenings, which began at the Club Café in Boston in 2003 and this year moved to the Oberon in Cambridge, are hosted by BMOP’s Score Board (New England composers) whose members take turns “curating.” On this occasion it was Curtis K. Hughes who introduced each work, with pianist Sarah Bob introducing Hughes’s own composition.

The Oberon, which is the alternative venue of the American Repertory Theater, has its problems for these run-outs. There is a bare, open stage against a wall with no wings. Small round tables with five hard wooden folding chairs, all facing the stage, are jammed in as closely as possible to create three rows on the dance floor, with a broad aisle at the back, and then the bar. On a raised platform to stage right are more tables and chairs closely assembled. The audience is ID’d at the door and given orange plastic bracelets to wear (hard to get off when you get home!), so that the barmaids, discretely taking orders before and during the concert don’t have to ask. The biggest problem is the air handling system, which constantly issues a loud hum. At least it doesn’t turn intermittently off with a rattle! Also, there is only a small, shiny upright piano. And maybe there was no one to man the lights, because the house remained dark throughout, so that we were unable to see our programs in between works to remember what we were hearing.

That said, the experience was a musically rewarding one, comprising works by this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962), Berklee’s Marti Epstein (b. 1959), the Israeli Koir Navok (b. 1971), M.I.T.’s John Harbison (b. 1938), and Hughes (b. 1974). Works were performed solo or in different combinations by flutist Jessi Rosinski, violinist Gabriela Diaz, cellist Katherine Kayaian, and pianist Sarah Bob, all who are or were former students at the New England Conservatory. Gil Rose was there to welcome the audience and greet each one at the end.

The concert, which proceeded without intermission, opened with Higdon’s Rapid-Fire for solo flute (1992), an extremely virtuosic one-movement work that depends heavily on over-blowing (increasing the blowing pressure and modifying the shape of the stream that enters the flute) to achieve “rapid-fire” alternation between fundamentals and overtones, all expertly performed by Rosinski. “Curator” Hughes remarked that his program notes, which were excellent, revealed a personal narrative placing the piece somewhere between a rock band and Bach, with its “unrelenting rhythmic drive” and “implied counterpoint,” whereas Higdon’s own notes, which he then read, referred to the jarring noises of a city. He asked us to judge:  Chaque à son goût!

Lior Navok was represented by four short (unnamed) selections from his hour-long The Old Photo Box (2006) for piano, a group of twenty miniatures reminiscent of Schumann’s Kinderszenen. Their character ranged from soft and exploratory to jovial, to loud and contrapuntal, the moods elicited by Sarah Bob as best she as could on a fairly unresponsive piano. John Harbison’s Suite for solo cello was written the same year as his Cello Concerto (1993, not 1994 as in the program). A short work of nine minutes, the Suite’s four Baroque-style movements make it seem even shorter — was idiomatically performed by Katherine Kayaian. The “Preludio” was slow and lyrical; the “Fuga — Buretta,” full of double stops and strong rhythmic gestures; the “Sarabanda,” also using quieter double stops to suggest a lullaby; and the “Giga,” presenting an arpeggiated melody.

The concert ended with a much longer work by Hughes: Insult to Injury (2003), for violin and piano. It is in two movements, whose nomenclature suggests their character: I. Tirade—Plateau—Retreat, and II. Travesty—Cadenza—Epilogue. Hughes writes that it includes “a volatile mix of aggression and introspection. I would characterize it as my most emotionally naked piece of chamber music, as it was written in 2003 under the influence of vehement, visceral reactions to politics and international events taking place during the same year. I have since withdrawn the original ‘program’ for the music, with the hope of allowing it to mean different things to different people.” Sarah Bob characterized it as “angry” and “American.” I heard long percussive phrases, cogent harmonies, dramatic changes as in a film score, a barn dance, a fiddle tune slowly and deliberately ruined by a bombastic piano, and an impressive cadenza — altogether a rich and engaging work I’d like to hear again.

There will be two more BMOP Club Concerts at the Oberon at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesdays (not Mondays), February 8 and April 26, 2011. The programs have not yet been announced, but they will be worth watching for.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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