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Ruminative, Peaceful, Competent, from Boston Musica Viva


The concert by the Boston Musica Viva on Friday, October 1, at the Tsai Performance Center of Boston University, centered on the regional finalists of the Rapido! Composition Contest, the brainchild last year of the pianist of the Atlanta Chamber Players and a local benefactor. This year it was expanded to include composers from the Northeast and the Midwest. Three composers in each region, blindly chosen from national submissions to the ACP, were asked to write three or more short movements for four players (one or two flutes and clarinets, cello and piano) in only fourteen days — from June 7 to 21. They were offered, but not required to accept, the inspiration of three sculptures by Alexander Calder in Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago.

We  heard works by Massachusetts faculty members Samuel Headrick (Boston University) and  Eric Sawyer (Amherst College), and recent graduate Patrick Greene, who completed his M. M. degree in Composition from Boston Conservatory in May—a range of age and experience, with surprisingly similar sounds. All wrote brief program notes that helped to distinguish among them. The three movement markings of Headrick’s The Flamingo Dances all begin with adverbs: “Exuberantly,” “Softly,” “Elegantly,” describing the dancing of the imaginary Flamingo (1974) of Calder’s sculpture in Chicago, the first movement even twittering among the instruments. The last note was a ravishing sustained pitch by flutist Ann Bobo, first tuning to the piano (Geoffrey Burleson) and then remaining exposed, changing colors until the end.  Sawyer wrote that his three short Excursions start with spontaneous destinations, but then get purposely side-tracked in various ways. His order of movements was traditional: fast-slow-fast, the third entitled “Rapido,” with constant intervallic runs up and down the sonic range, deftly performed. Shortest of all were Greene’s miniatures, entitled AbstractEXTRACTION, played without pause, that were over almost before we had time to register the new piece. His notes explaining his title indicated his wish to ”strike a balance . . . between [his] own ‘extractive’ style and the ‘abstractive’ style of Calder and the modernists.”

Conductor Richard Pittman, speaking for  the regional judges Chou Wen-chung, Lee Hyla, and himself, stressed how difficult it was to choose a winner. Greene was the winner, so his piece will be performed by the ACP in January in further competition with composers from the two other regions. The final winner, chosen by national audience voting on the Internet, will be commissioned to extend his or her work by ten to twelve minutes to be performed in all three regions next season. An audience-member confessed gleefully how much she enjoyed this part of the concert, and how much harder than usual she had listened, presumably trying to guess on what grounds the winner would be judged, or at least determining her own preference.

Pittman often uses a different method of audience involvement, inviting composers to speak before the performance of his or her works. Chou Wen-chung. nearly ninety, but ageless, was only too glad to oblige at length for the concert opener. As Chou’s younger colleague, Lei Liang, said later in the program, “Chou challenges composers [and, we may add, his audience] to engage at a deep philosophical level.” Chou’s Ode to Eternal Pine (2009), is based on an earlier work (Eternal Pine, 2008) for traditional Korean instruments, here scored for flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, and cello. (You may read his notes about the piece, see a page of the score, and hear an excerpt here.) A meditation on eternity, its “Prelude” begins very softly with small keyboard mallets on the piano’s lowest strings, the sounds then matched by those of the cello. The materials of this movement are then developed through fragmentary sliding phrases and rhythmic patterns echoed throughout the four succeeding movements, as Chou says, “with emphasis on the fluidity of instrumental voices rather than exploitation of novel colors.” Chou’s music is frequently programmed by the BMV, and the players are fluent in his idiom, resulting in a warm, confident (not to mention competent) performance once again on this occasion.

Aural Hypothesis was the title of the concert as a whole, and also of a new (2010) single movement by Lei Liang, now Associate Professor at the University of California at San Diego. Commissioned by the BMV, with a grant from the Jebediah Foundation New Music Commissions, it is a work for the same group of six players. A seventh “instrument” accrues by the stunning melodic use of the bass-clarinet mouthpiece in the hands of William Kirkley. Using simple materials, Liang creates a series of gestures moving in long lines—as he says, “a quasi-fantastical study on how lines may find expression in sound.” The work is dedicated to Chou Wen-Chung by whom Liang is obviously richly inspired. Both works were ruminative, peaceful, and a joy to hear from these performers.

For the final work, we heard Satires of Circumstance (composed in 1964, not 1969 as in the program, the date the BMV first performed it during its first season). It was then a pivotal step forward by composer Seymour Shifrin (1926-1979), who taught at Brandeis University from 1966 until his untimely death. The notes by composer Martin Boykan are derived from his eloquent review of it in Perspectives of New Music (1966). Shifrin here sets three poems by Thomas Hardy, in which  the long centerpiece is “The Convergence of the Twain: Lines on the Loss of the Titanic.” The BMV core group was joined by mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal and contrabass Carolyn Davis Fryer. The cellist had to lower the pitch of his lowest string. Dellal was at her best in this vocally extraordinarily difficult work. As Pittman noted in his introduction, it is pointillist, and Dellal, with her perfect diction, was up to the task of hitting various juxtaposed, disparate high and low pitches spot on. The last syllable of the last line of the last poem, “Lalla-la, lalla-la, lalla-la, lu!” was exquisite.

Throughout the evening I found the playing of pianist Geoffrey Burleson made sense of what we were  hearing; at certain times, it also created sounds to which other players needed to tune for a radiant sum —not that the pieces or players were falling apart or out of tune—in fact quite the opposite, and this comment is related more to coincidences of composition rather than performance. The mature, expert, dedicated, sensitive ensemble playing of the core group, comprising Geoff, Ann Bobo (flute), William Kirkley (clarinet), Robert Schulz (percussion), Bayla Keyes (violin), and Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello is seldom matched, anywhere. Composer (and Rapido! competition judge) Lee Hyla, in comparing the new music scenes of Boston and Chicago in Friday’s Boston Globe, used the word “entrenched” to describe Boston’s. Yes, the Musica Viva has been around for forty-one years, but they sure have something to show for it!

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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