Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose offered its annual Boston-area composer event Friday at Jordan Hall. Although all four featured composers had studied either at Harvard University or the New England Conservatory (among other institutions), three of them have spent much of their careers in the middle of the state, at one of the colleges ranged along the Connecticut River. Taken altogether, the works written between 1990 and this year provided a colorful and considerable variety and interest.
David Sanford’s Black Noise, in its first performance, was the most overtly “modern” work of the evening, employing a wide range of colors, often produced by extended playing techniques, and creating during much of the piece an aura of sustained and hovering sonorities, against which specific pointillistic rhythmic ideas set up an alternative musical character to the almost motionless feel of the opening. A jazzy solo pizzicato for the principal double bass toward the middle of the piece sparks similar pizzicati in the cellos, and the gesture spreads widely to a substantial climax before sailing off into the distance and dying away in combination with the sustained sounds that began the work.
John Harbison’s Double Concerto for violin, cello, and orchestra, of 2009, evokes in its title the famous Double Concerto of Brahms. But if Brahms’s soloists are wrestlers confronting one another in muscular opposition, Harbison’s soloists are more companionate; indeed, during much of the piece they play homophonically, or even in unison or octaves, seeming to take refuge with one another against the full orchestra. According to the composer’s notes, he had made a conscious decision to take a different tack from his earlier double concerto for oboe and clarinet, in which he had placed the soloists “in a contentious, dramatic struggle.”
Violinist Miranda Cuckson and cellist Julia Bruskin matched well in elegance, sweetness of sound, and technique. In each of the three movements they take varying approaches to their dialogue. The first t emphasizes imitative counterpoint, the second, a slow movement, develops mirrorlike echoes of one another in canonic touches. In the finale, a lively dancing movement, the two soloists sing sustained lines that grow broadly lyrical and close in octaves before reaching the slightly quirky, charming conclusion in which, after the orchestra has essentially died away, the two string soloists close the proceedings with a pair of unison pizzicatos.
Harbison’s music is generally tonal in feeling, though with harmonic ambiguities between major and minor tunings that can color the effect considerably. Eric Sawyer, whose Fantasy Concerto: Concord Conversations followed intermission, has a strong interest in American history and culture that shows up in the images he chooses to present and in the sonorities of his music. The Fantasy Concerto is designed to evoke three leading intellectuals in 19th-century Concord, represented by the performers of a piano trio. For this purpose he employs a musical language that, while not directly of the 19th century, resonates throughout in terms of the American past, though with other materials often layered on top to suggest the period without indulging in musical archeology.
The “conversations” imagined here take place between three of the principal Transcendentalists: Margaret Fuller (violin), Bronson Alcott (cello), and Ralph Waldo Emerson (piano), represented respectively by Miranda Cuckson, Julia Bruskin, and pianist Andrea Lam. During the pre-concert discussion, Sawyer mentioned that he had borrowed a short reference from the “Alcotts” movement of the Ives Concord Sonata. He constructed that theme of minor thirds, also abstracting it to a two-note figure of seesawing minor thirds that appeared at several points. This, however, was the only specific quotation in the course of the work beyond a general sense of 19th century romanticism. Though the three soloists together make up the standard membership of the piano trio, here they appear more as individuals representing the personalities of the three historical figures.
The closer, Ronald Perera’s The Saints (1990), was something of a jeu d’esprit. Listed in the handout as “three pieces for orchestra with audience participation,” it had been commissioned by the 92nd Street Y in New York City to evoke a sense of musical participation among audiences of young people. To that end, Perera chose the well-known song, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The first movement Choirs presents it in what might be called a cheerfully educational mode: by tossing it around through the musical families of the orchestra. Joyful Noise then plays with elements of the famous tune still just hinting at it, without presenting it in a particularly straightforward way. Finally, Marching in gradually clarifies the materials into a representation of something very close to the tune itself, at which point the conductor turns and cues the audience to join and singing at full voice.
The audience participation brought a rousing conclusion to a very satisfying and very well-played program of varied contemporary pieces—something we have become privileged to expect of conductor Gil Rose and BMOP.
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.
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