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Musica Viva’s “Ocean Crossings”


As usual, Richard Pittman designed a disparate, but ultimately organic program exhibiting his excellent taste developed during long years of conducting contemporary music, specifically the Boston Musica Viva, now in its 41st year. The performance in the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University, Friday, March 5, was the last before the group leaves to perform American music in the new concert hall, Kings Place, in London. Probably not coincidentally, Friday’s program was entitled “Ocean Crossings.”

That was stretching the point, but no matter.  Donald Crockett and Rand Steiger did cross the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans to hear and speak briefly about their works. Crockett is currently Chair of the Composition Department and Director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, and is also active as a guest conductor of various other new music ensembles. His The Cinnamon Peeler (1993) is a powerful setting of the sensual poem by Michael Ondaatje (author of the novel, The English Patient) for mezzo-soprano, piano, viola, violoncello, flute, and clarinet. Pamela Dellal sang beautifully, standing in the same semi-circle as the instruments rather than forward of them, emphasizing the point that the voice part is on equal footing with them, but causing the text to be almost unintelligible until the last two verses, when we heard the poem, in clear, dramatic vocal articulation. I hasten to add that clear diction is one of Dellal’s usual strengths. The piece was one of changing moods, with mellow interludes between verses easing the accrued tension of the angry text.

Rand Steiger, Visiting Professor of Composition at Harvard University last fall, is Chair of the Music Department at the University of California, San Diego, and also a conductor of various new music groups; he was the founding artistic director of the California EAR Unit. We heard the world première of his Elliott’s Instruments (2010), commissioned by the Musica Viva with support from the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation. “Elliott” refers to Elliott Carter, whose recent 100th birthday Steiger was honoring with this work—yea, more than honoring, for Steiger offers this as a “companion piece” to Carter’s Triple Duo, and “draws on all of the solo and chamber music that Elliott wrote for these six instruments [violin, violoncello, flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, percussion, piano] since . . . 1948.” References to, and even quotations from specific works abound, “but mostly the piece consists of passages that are reminiscent of, yet not identical to, the sources.” Steiger, in his brief remarks preceding the performance, even mentioned making a chronological list of Carter’s music and working from that. “O dear,” I thought, we’re in for some pedantry.” Not so! After a “Carterish” opening of energetically rhythmic dense dissonance, the work continued, emphasizing the individuality of each instrument in turn, and in ensemble, and using hocket-like techniques to sustain long “melodic” lines. The work builds up to a fortissimo climax, and ends on a beautiful chord you wish to hear a little longer. In fact, I’d like to hear this entire piece again soon.

The concert opened with Twilight Colors (2007) by Chou Wen Chung, long of Columbia University (until 1991) and no stranger to these concerts. (But he was in California!) The four-movement work with coda was “inspired by the exceptional colors over the Hudson River Valley,” the same ones that attracted that school of American painters.  It is written for a string trio, and two wind trios (flute, oboe, clarinet), the second formed by the same players doubling on different instruments. In his prefatory remarks, Pittman noted that Chou’s recent works are based on the concepts of brush strokes in Chinese calligraphy, in which the artist controls the speed and thickness of the line, not one of which begins with the full brush. Thus the tempo is always in flux, and both the vibratos and trills begin slowly and increase in speed. And so it was, with delicate but never tentative lines, often the same ones drifting among different instruments, arriving at a huge climax at the end of the Coda.

After intermission we heard the British composer Nicholas Maw’s Ghost Dances (1988), for violin, violoncello, flute, clarinets, and piano, all doubling on folk instruments. Although Pittman spoke of his friendship with Maw (1935-2009), who tended to be “long-winded,” that did not seem to be the case with this work of many moods in nine movements plus introduction and epilog, with titles marked “frenetico” and “sinistro,” for example. Basically, said Pittman, this is a dance piece. There was indeed a beautiful “Pas de deux” (between the violoncello (Jan Müller-Szeraws) and clarinet (William Kirkley), making best use of the rich capacities of each instrument in the mid to lower range, accompanied by the piano (Geoff Burleson), a sonorous “Rückblick” (Backward glance), a very dissonant “The Frozen Moment,” and a lively “Bacchanale” full of rhythmically repeated notes.

Pittman has recently begun announcing the “Encores” in the program. This one was a humorous Old King Cole from Ma Goose (2004) by his good friend Bernard Hoffer, delightfully narrated by Pamela Dellal, over violin, violoncello, piccolo, clarinet, percussion, and piano. Somehow Nat King Cole slips in there, too.

In addition to those already named, performers included Ann Bobo, flute, Nancy Dimock, oboe, Bayla Keyes, violin, Peter Sulski, viola, and Robert Schulz, percussion. All are superb musicians and perform with élan under Pittman’s experienced conducting. Their next concert, on April 23 and 24, will present a world première of a multi-media chamber opera, Phoolan Devi: The Bandit Queen, by Shirish Korde, with preview performances April 15 and17 at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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