in: Reviews

February 10, 2009

Boston Musica Viva: The Vanishing, The Invisible, and The Hungry

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Music as accompaniment to spoken narration is a tradition in Western music that goes at least as far back as the melodramas of the late 18th century. However, most of the well-known works of this type are from the 20th century, among the most famous of which is Peter and the Wolf (1936), words and music by Sergei Prokofiev. Written for children, it tells the story of a clever boy who captures a hungry wolf with the help of various other characters, all of which are depicted through witty narrative and memorable melodies.

On February 8, in the Tsai Performing Arts Center, Boston Musica Viva under the direction of Richard Pittmann presented a paired-down yet lively performance of this oft-played favorite, along with two new and equally engaging “music-stories” for children. The contemporary works also featured Marimba Magic, a remarkable ensemble of skilled and very young percussionists.

One could argue that the most important component of such a concert is the narrator, especially when the target audience is pre- or barely post-pubescent. No matter how good the music or interesting the story, kids will generally tune out unless the person delivering the words can grab their attention. Steve Aveson, who narrated all three works, did just that, and he can easily be credited as the main reason the wee ones listening were so engrossed throughout the nearly two-hour show. His diction was clear, his inflections ear-catching, and his energy high. Moreover, he was able to capture clever characterizations of the various figures in the stories without slipping too much into “funny voices” caricature.

The first work on the program was Vanishing Cream. It is a colorful story by Ian McEwan about a slightly obsessive-compulsive boy who is delighted to find a jar of cream in the back of a messy cupboard that can make anyone onto whom it is rubbed disappear, a discovery with humorous and life-lesson learning consequences. Composer Andy Vores, commissioned in 2002 by BMV to write music for this narration, created a sound world that is appropriately uncanny. With an odd assortment of instruments, including harpsichord, marimbas, and bundt-cake pans, the music punctuates the moods and actions of the tale without becoming cartoonish. It supplies a continuous underscore of high-end radio-play musical effects from which occasionally emerge eerie yet lovely melodies, enhancing an accessibly sophisticated overall sonic atmosphere.

The second work was the world premiere of Derek Jacoby’s 2008 accompaniment to Hans Christian Anderson’s classic The Emperor’s New Clothes. Despite sporadic references to certain genres – Latin dance, martial fanfares, Classical marches – the music itself was almost distractingly nondescript, often flattening out the arcs of the narrative. Luckily, the ensemble’s technical wit and Aveson’s narrative skills were able to give the generally gray musical sonorities some luster.

The Prokofiev came last, and although one missed the varied and full-bodied colors of a symphony orchestra, the small-ensemble arrangement allowed for a type of intimate story-telling that can be very satisfying. Musica Viva lived up to their name, delivering a vivacious performance that left everyone in the hall, regardless of age, smiling.

Tom Schnauber, a Boston-based composer, is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department of Emmanuel College. He holds a PhD in composition and theory from the University of Michigan.

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