in: Reviews

March 8, 2010

Boston Modern Orchestra Project: Strings Attached

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The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) presented its third full concert of the season at Jordan Hall on Saturday night, March 6, exclusively featuring the strings in an extensive, fairly eclectic program of music for string orchestra. The program, tagged “Strings Attached” was the counterpart to BMOP’s prior concert in January featuring music exclusively for winds. The pieces performed included two monuments of the 20th-century canon, Bartók’s Divertimento and Babbitt’s Correspondences for string orchestra and synthesized tape. Other highlights were Scott Wheeler’s Crazy Weather, Stephen Hartke’s Alvorada, Three Madrigals, Betty Olivero’s Neharót, Neharót, and the winner of the BMOP/NEC student competition Stained Glass by Nathan Ball.

The world premiere of Nathan Ball’s Stained glass opened the program with an amalgam of American post-minimalist and European spiritual minimalist styles, with intermittent hints of Americana. Ball exhibited a praiseworthy command of orchestration, shifting between musical textures with convincing and affective narrative. The piece was quite enjoyable, though limited by a rather strict, at times uninventive harmonic language, and developed musical ideas successfully despite being on the shorter side. Stained Glass is, however, a first movement of a larger work entitled Atone, and undoubtedly left the audience very interested in hearing this up-and-coming composer’s triptych in its entirety.

As Scott Wheeler’s Crazy Weather and Stephen Hartke’s Alvorada followed, one could not help but notice some unifying aspects between the pieces on the first half. Each of the pieces seemed to rely on traditional formal structures, some of which permeated well beyond both Wheeler’s and Hartke’s three-movement, fast-slow-fast structural mold. The most effective moments of Crazy Weather came in the more freely composed Adagio, as the music slowly and mysteriously gained a sense of motion from its suspended, frozen beginning. The third movement, Steadily Driving, built a more visceral and satisfying movement off of the materials introduced in the first, but at times seemed unconfidently delivered, and lacking in the motivation and intensity that the piece required– a very rare symptom for an ensemble with the versatility and performance standards of BMOP. Crazy Weather concluded with an extremely effective hocketing of string harmonics. Hartke’s Alvorada, Three Madrigals also seemed to press some of its most intriguing moments into the second movement, with overt melodiousness that seemed both strange and familiar. The third movement, “Bailada,” developed a wonderfully elaborate dance out of very simple materials, culminating in a surprising and pleasantly awkward coda reminiscent of Hindemith.

The performance of Milton Babbitt’s Correspondences was a validating display of BMOPs adeptness with some of the most difficult (both practically and conceptually) music written in the 20th century.  A good performance of Babbitt’s strict, pointillistic, and methodologically composed music will go beyond accuracy and draw a sense of organicism out of mixture of strings and prerecorded synthetic sounds.  No easy feat, Gil Rose and BMOP were able to breathe some sense of life into a piece that is most often only interpreted with cold precision.

Israeli composer Betty Olivero’s Neharót, Neharót was beautiful, disturbing, comforting, mystifying, and alien all at once– and without doubt the most impassioned performance of the evening.  The piece immediately drops the listener into a distinct and compelling sound world, craftily blurring the lines between consonance and dissonance while maintaining focus on an eerily shifting atmosphere. Out of the texture emerges a mesmerizing, twisting counterpoint between the accordion, section violist, and solo violist Kim Kashkashian. The solo viola continues to later interact with prerecorded samples of Middle-eastern, African, and Spanish sources– all of which become obscured in some way beneath the dense textures of the ensemble.  Kashkashian’s performance created a sense of connectivity between audience and soloist that is rarely experiences, especially in contemporary music.

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project closed the program with a fantastic performance of Bartók’s Divertimento, one of the finest works of the composer, and one of the finest compositions of the period. The performance was energetic and sensitive, and rounded off the various styles represented in the program with profundity. BMOP concludes its season with the full orchestra on May 28th with a program not to be missed, featuring the works of Steven Stucky, Leon Kirchner, Anthony De Ritis, Kati Agócs, and Martin Boykan.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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