in: Reviews

January 31, 2012

Complementary “Strange Bedfellows”

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The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is one of our fair city’s most consistent performing ensembles, in terms of musicianship as well as engaging programming. In the past year their performances have ranged from the neo-classicism of Sir Michael Tippett to the cyberopera of Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers, via formidable “monsters of modernism” like Milton Babbitt. In a program entitled “Strange Bedfellows: Unexpected Concertos” last Friday, January 27, the group, under the reliable baton of Gil Rose, presented a very well-attended program of mostly bleeding-edge concerti for unconventional instruments, remarkable not only for the intriguing premise but for the fact that the pieces complemented each other so well within what might have easily proven a mere affectation of programming.

The concert opened with Luciano Berio’s Chemins II su Sequenza VI, the one work of dusty 20th-century provenance, with John Stulz nimbly and at times ferociously executing the tremulous solo part. Berio is well known for his comprehensive series of studies for solo instruments entitled Sequenza, and several of these pieces became the basis for ensemble works entitled Chemins. Here, his Sequenza VI for viola is expanded to include a chamber accompaniment of nine instruments, shaking and palpitating through a succession of tonal plateaus for nearly the entire duration of the piece. The sputtering and sizzling textures, with occasional interjections in the form of clarinet jabs or flute flourishes, gave way slightly towards the end for some slow and thoughtful ruminations from the viola. A marvel in its own right, the piece also served to foreshadow the newer pieces on the program.

Keeril Makan’s Dream Lightly for electric guitar and orchestra featured none of the histrionics that its instrumentation might suggest. The electric guitar part, deftly rendered by Seth Josel, was performed almost entirely on harmonics. This exercise in understatement lived up to its title, as passages hung, dreamlike, in the air, not so much developing as recurring, half-remembered. The piece opened as shimmering strings and harp harmonics provided a bed for a simple diatonic motif, the guitar’s delicate timbres evoking distant chimes, or perhaps a kind of change ringing. The pure intervals of the guitar harmonics occasionally stirred ripples when pitted against the equal temperament of the accompanying instruments, contributing to the hazy atmosphere. Rumblings from the winds were not enough to break the sense of rapt serenity of this gorgeous reverie.

Avner Dorman’s Mandolin Concerto, featuring soloist Avi Avital, was perhaps the most flamboyant and best-received piece of the evening. In its idiomatic tremolos, it harkened back to the Berio that opened the program, and in its diatonic passages also evoked the Makan piece. The orchestral accompaniment, for strings alone, hung in perfect counterbalance against the solo part, serving at times as a distorting gauze that expanded upon and framed the more plaintive, folkloric melodies of the mandolin, and sometimes as a more muscular sheen, thumping a steady, rhythmic pizzicato groove to drive the momentum forward.

Andrew Norman’s Air: for Theremin and Orchestra, featuring soloist Dalit Warshaw, took full advantage of the unique orchestral possibilities afforded by this unique pairing. The theremin’s tone, evocative of the human voice in the lyrically arioso passages composed for it, is nonetheless rather narrow in its spectral contour, opening up a wide range of possibilities for instrumental pairings, of which the composer made dazzling use. It was thrilling to hear the theremin’s mid-range tone suddenly blossom with the higher overtones of the strings, and the strings returned the favor by evoking in cascading portamenti the theremin’s lithe continuum of pitch. Norman composed with a clear sense of the historicity of his featured instrument, favored of sci-fi composers and avant-garde provocateurs alike, with the vibes part in particular propositioning listeners back to a half-remembered space age bachelor pad in downtown Utopia.

Eric Chasalow’s Horn Concerto was in some ways the most traditionally modernist piece of the evening; the horn soloist emerged gradually on a single note from a jungle of sharp jabs from the orchestra. The piece subsided into a reverie in the two slow middle movements, in which gossamer strings provided a backdrop for searing lyricism in the horn part. Soloist Bruno Schneider executed the demanding score with breathtaking agility, extracting an exhilarating range of color from his instrument, even before making use of the handsome mute he wore in a holster on his hip.

As my concert-going companion commented after the show, “Strange bedfellows, indeed!”

Ben Houge, a composer, digital media artist, and instructor of video game audio at Berklee College of Music and Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts, is currently an artist-in-residence at MIT. He will present his work with the Media Lab’s Responsive Environments group at a public talk at MIT’s Bartos Theater on February 15 – information here.

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