The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is known for exploring a wide variety of 20th- and 21st-century instrumental music. On January 22nd at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, under the baton of music director Gil Rose, the group forayed into wind ensemble territory with a program of varying styles and with mixed effectiveness.
The first half of the concert presented two classics sandwiching a brand new work. It opened with Igor Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920), one of the great standards of the wind orchestra repertoire. It is a mini masterpiece, characterized by dynamic textural contrasts, gritty harmonies, and a clarity of structure that hints at the neoclassicism the composer would later embrace. Rose’s interpretation seemed to favor some of these features to the detriment of others, however. The rhythmic accuracy was impressive; and the ensemble’s intonation was impeccable, giving powerful resonance to the darkly rich chords in the work. Yet the performance as a whole seemed somewhat constrained, especially in terms of articulation and the varying instrumental colors, a main component of the piece’s design. The bright hues lacked sparkle, the earthy long-tones missed depth, and the watercolor legato scales were wanting in fluidity, so that the overall effect was a sonic sameness that kept the piece from really coming alive.
On the other hand, such stark contrasts are generally not characteristic of Percy Grainger’s music. Instead, his many and brilliant works for wind ensemble concentrate on broad strokes of lavish instrumental colors and flavorfully inflected melodies. The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart (1953), though not as well-known as his other band works, is pure Grainger, from the hymn-like portative organ solo that seems to be leaking from an old, salt-worn church, to the oceanic instrumentation that gives the piece the feel of a steroid-infused sea shanty. This feel, along with the fitful dynamic swells, the nuanced phrasing, and the overall, hyper-lush wind-band sound were all beautifully captured by Rose and the ensemble.
The work that fell between the Stravinsky and the Grainger was Harold Meltzer’s Privacy (2008). Scored for piano (played by Ursula Oppens, for whom the work was written) and a medium-sized ensemble, it was annoyingly unimpressive. The scoring was awkward, and the clumsy syncopations served to confuse soloist and ensemble so that Oppens and Rose often seemed unintentionally out of step throughout (though perhaps this is what the composer means when he calls the piece an “anti concerto”).
If the first part of the concert had its unsuccessful moments, the second half more than made up for them with two fascinating pieces, each of which were worth the price of admission. Wayne Peterson’s And the Winds Shall Blow (1994) is an engaging and, at points, thrilling concerto grosso of sorts for saxophone quartet and wind ensemble. Its complex, atonal language is expressed through dense, prickly textures, full of rapid runs and dynamic outbursts. The saxophonists of the PRISM Quartet had a remarkably lyrical take on the fragmented, almost pointillistic phrases through which they interacted with the ensemble, itself skillfully balanced by Rose. The structure of the piece seemed to be a wild stream of consciousness, culminating in a long, beautifully played quartet-cadenza that captured all the various moods and gestures that had come before.
The final piece on the program was Joseph Schwantner’s Recoil (2004). A work of brazenly sophisticated barbarism, it bursts forth like Conan raised to demigod status, treading the Earth with a host of fallen angels (eerie passages sung by members of the band) and prehistoric kings (the BMOP percussionists in full force). The work was delivered by Rose and the ensemble with enthusiastic, almost wild exuberance. The program as a whole may have been inconsistent, but the ending was sensational.