New Music veteran Boston Musica Viva, in celebration of its 40th anniversary, performed a mix of 20th-century chamber works and two premieres of mini-operas at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center last Friday evening.
The first half of the program featured older chamber works by the more prolific composers who have been associated with the ensemble. The programming of Ellen Taafe Zwilich’s Chamber Symphony (commissioned by BMV four years before her Pulitzer) and Steven Stucky’s Boston Fancies (commissioned by BMV 20 years before his Pulitzer) sent a clear message about the authority of the ensemble over the last four decades. Aaron Copland’s Sextet (1937) may have been a bit far-reaching for a “new-music” concert, but the piece represents a slightly more progressive style than what he is perhaps most known for. And, of course, it allowed conductor Richard Pittman to share an anecdote about Copland while he was on the BMV’s board of advisors. The ensemble graced each of the first three pieces with as noteworthy a performance, as they likely did by in previous decades.
After the Intermission, the chamber ensemble disappeared into the pit for new commissions of the “Living Statues” mini-operas by composers Theo Loevendie and Andy Vores. A third mini-opera by Brian Robison was not performed on Friday, as the piece was not completed. The concept was unique: each composer would write a short opera depicting a Boston statue.
In seven short minutes, Theo Loevendie (hailing from the Conservatory of Amsterdam) depicted the life and trials of William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist and journalist immortalized on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall at Dartmouth Street. The music was quite introspective, with minimal interplay between the performers on stage (soprano Elizabeth Keusch and baritone David Kravitz). The focus instead was on a meticulously organized, effective interplay between the ensemble and vocalists, narrating Garrison’s story through Nicholas Deutsch’s libretto. Culminating in a powerful moment, Loevendie’s The Liberator quotes Garrison’s own “Song of the Abolitionist,” set to the tune of Old Lang Syne. The piece ends in morose finality, nearly a hyperbolism, with Kravitz stuttering final lines, trailing off, mimicking a Garrison’s final heartbeats with his fist against a wooden chair.
Andy Vores’s The Statue of Leif Eriksson took a much different approach to the operatic depiction of a Boston statue (on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall at Charlesgate East); it relied much more heavily on staged theatrics. Still utilizing only two performers, Vores’s mini-opera calls for the performers to stage multiple personalities and comically execute costume changes on stage throughout the five short scenes. The music was generally repetitive, as vocal dialogue was accompanied by motoric instrumental writing that seemed to lack enough variation in color to keep the music interesting. Scene four, an aria of the statue of Leif Eriksson lamenting his estranged existence as an under-appreciated mass of bronze, musically stood out from its surrounding scenes. While still humorous in its absurdity, the aria employed the full range of instrumental colors of the ensemble in a flowing, yet eerily static composition reminiscent of Morton Feldman. In moments like these, Vores shows the dexterous ability to effectively combine serious music with an amusing approach to the commission’s concept.
Boston Musica Viva will return to the Tsai Performance Center on November 14 with another program of new music, featuring world premieres of compositions by Peter Child and Ezra Simms.
Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area.