in: Reviews

June 19, 2010

Boston Musica Viva at Rockport: Looking on the Bright Side of Life

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The Rockport Chamber Music Festival branched into new territory on Friday, June 18, as Boston Musica Viva, at 41 the area’s longest-running contemporary music ensemble, presented a program largely drawn from works it has commissioned. Under Music Director Richard Pittman and with mezzo-soprano soloist Pamela Dellal, BMV supplied an assortment of works, all by American composers, ranging from old masters Charles Ives and John Cage to senior statesman Gunther Schuller, and to established solid citizens Steven Stucky and Michael Gandolfi. Appropriately for a festive (almost) summer event, this was primarily an exposition of classic American optimism and good cheer, savoring life on the sunny side of the street.

The opener was Michael Gandolfi’s Grooved Surfaces, a 1996 BMV commission, whose title derived from half-finished road construction but whose three movements limned a groove of other kinds in a jazzy and engaging exploration of African drumming techniques, pentatonic ostinati and giddy cross-rhythms, respectively. Against these basic grooves Gandolfi filled the air with rolling, hopping, clattering patter, utterly charming.

There followed what was for us the unexpected highlight of the evening, John Cage’s Credo in US, an earlyish (1942) piece originally (natch) a dance score for Merce Cunningham, in which Cage adumbrated his later involvement with found-object sounds and chance procedures. In this case he integrated these ideas, expressed in percussion utilizing tin cans and cued pre-recorded sound (here a CD of Dvorak’s New World Symphony—the scherzo, if anyone cares—though it could have been any recording of a European classic work or even a radio broadcast), into music for piano (both “normal,” usually jazzy, and muted with hands and sticks, often in pentatonic patterns) and other percussion, including a cymbal muted by being laid on foam. Despite what for modern ears must sound like a pretty square rhythmic structure, this all came together in a touching affirmation of American anarchic multifariousness against the Nietzschean nihilism and monolithic ideologies forcefully arrayed against us in World War II. A special shout-out here is due to pianist Geoffrey Burleson, who seamlessly integrated the conventional and muted sounds, and did extra duty on a tom-tom, adding a further layer of Native American effects.

The program’s first half closed with the most significant music of the evening, arrangements by Pittman of five songs by Charles Ives, those designated as “Street Songs and Pieces” in the composer’s 114 Songs. These were, in anthology order, “Old Home Day,” “In the Alley,” A Son of a Gambolier,” “Down East” and “The Circus Band.” Instead of this order, Pittman sensibly presented them with first and last reversed, a more dramatically suitable sequence. This also gets them in more closely chronological order, the first three from the 1890s and the last two just after World War I. Although Ives listed the texts as “Traditional,” to paraphrase a line from “Circus Band,” those golden words were all his own. Although Pittman’s ordering was sound on dramatic grounds (about which more later), it also helps focus on the evolution of Ives’s esthetics and his artistic maturation. The early pieces date from Ives’s Yale days and are relatively straightforward and jocular in tone—in a footnote to “In the Alley” Ives claims to have included it “to help clear up a long disputed point, namely: which is worse, the music or the words?”—but even in these, young Ives was experimenting with off-accents and stretched rhythms to capture both the cadences of conversational speech and the breathless tone of the narrator, as in “Circus Band.” The later songs are not at all straightforward, despite quoting from familiar tunes and the absence of Ives’s most strident harmonies: they are set as frame tales, with dreamy and nostalgic openings, and occasional internal passages, evoking earlier times in rueful recognition that the Great War had rent the very fabric of social time.

Pittman’s arrangements accomplished several things. One was to unpack some of Ives’s dense piano textures and, with the aid of the clear acoustic of Shalin Liu Performance Center, clarify lines that might otherwise get lost. The other, much more obvious, was to give out a “grand and glorious noise,” beginning right at the beginning as most of the ensemble marched down the aisle in imitation of the circus band, including Pittman on bass drum and cymbal. Among the other highlights of orchestration was the very literal rendition of an obbligato Ives wrote into “Gambolier” and designated “Kazoo Chorus.” Needless to say, all these high-jinks were performed (including some unison singing) with enormous gusto by the ensemble, which in the case of violinist Bayla Keyes could be termed an understatement. Ms. Dellal, for the most part singing what poetically is a boy’s voice, was all Rocket J. Squirrel spunky, with excellent diction (although at times even she was submerged by waves of instrumental sound), and, in the later numbers, with affecting tenderness.

The second half (there was an encore, but we will not follow Click and Clack’s example by calling that the “third half”) was entirely given over to works commissioned by BMV, the first of which was the 2007 Four Vignettes by Gunther Schuller. The composer introduced the work from the stage, ending with a disquisition on the various sources of musical inspiration: the first movement, “Atmospherics,” from a starry sky, into which all the instruments save the piano escape at the end; the second, “Capriccio,” a study in many-layered cross-rhythms, seemed to come from nowhere; the third, “Dreamscape: Found Objects,” another quiet and static piece with irruptions, from an exhibition of Dali paintings; and the fourth, “Scherzo Fantastico,” from Liszt’s similarly named late piano works. The four numbers were all brief, and none of them plumbed any great depths, but provided diverting splashes of instrumental color and texture. The concluding scherzo, featuring ersatz celesta (a real one was called for but Kurzweil afforded a satisfactory substitute) and glockenspiel, had a kind of Disneyesque manic cheerfulness.

The nominal finale was Steven Stucky’s Boston Fancies, which BMV obtained from the then-young composer in 1985. Stucky set this up as a kind of chorus-and-verse operation on the order of a concerto grosso, where the choruses, designated ritornelli but not literally repeated, punctuated with a bright and forward-driving energy a series of “fancies,” in the old English musical sense of contrapuntal fantasias, which featured sub-groupings of the ensemble, rather Dowlandesque and dreamy. There were lovely sonorities and sound bending, with fine work from flute, clarinet, cello and percussion. This work, though not new, was unfamiliar to us, and we would be happy to hear it again—only not at the end of a long program.

Did we say end? We exaggerated, as BMV actually concluded what we fear had become an unconscionably long program—made longer by oral program notes before every piece (there were fine written ones by Sandra Hyslop)—with an excerpt on the theme of Old King Cole (with a rather egregious tip of the hat to the Nat King Cole Trio of revered memory) from Bernard Hoffer’s Ma Goose for narrator (Ms. Dellal) and ensemble, which BMV commissioned for one of its family concert programs. It was, we must report, sprightly and entertaining for its purpose, if a bit overwrought ditto, but we confess we were not merry old souls when it began and became no more so when it ended.

The performances by Pittman and the ensemble were all tip-top. There were the peripatetic Bayla Keyes on violin, Peter Sulski, viola (in the Stucky), Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello (great tone and wonderful seagull glissandi in both the Schuller and Stucky), Ann Bobo, flute, William Kirkley, clarinet, Burleson, piano, and the ever-moving Robert Schulz, percussion. Apart from Burleson and Pittman, Kirkley served as auxiliary percussionist and Ann Bobo DJ’ed the Dvorak in the Cage.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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