IN: Reviews

Accurately, Luminous Noise


The Boston Modern Orchestra Project, directed by Gil Rose, peeled down to a base ensemble of fourteen players for a concert at Tufts University on Sunday, December 12, repeating a program given previously at Wellesley College [Ed: reviewed on these pages here]. “Luminous Noise” was the infelicitous but accurately reflective title of the program of music by three women composers, two of whom were on hand for the applause. I attended as a Tufts loyalist and a member of the Advisory Board of BMOP.

Jenny Olivia Johnson, resident composer at Wellesley, was represented by Dollar Beers (Redondo Beach ’96), composed 2006, for soprano, flute, violin, cello, piano, percussion and electronics, with text by the composer. It featured attractive repeating harmonies on an irregularly descending B-flat, A-flat, G-flat ostinato bass, rising to a loud climax and fading back slowly to a quiet ending. This was the most luminous and least noisy work on the program. The singer, Lucy McVeigh, was completely inaudible in the live acoustics of Distler Hall, but this was doubtless by intention, the text being provided in a program insert.

Two works by Chen Yi followed. Her Suite for Cello and Chamber Winds, with percussion, was in four movements, four woodwinds and three brass. David Russell is a professor at Wellesley and an outstanding cellist, but he was mostly overpowered by the winds in this suite except when he was playing elaborate unaccompanied cadenzas. The second movement, “Echoes of the Set Bells,” had a low open fifth that was nicely resonant, formed by low bassoon and muted trombone in an effective pairing. “Flower Drums in Dance,” the fourth movement, was a fast toccata with sextuplet repeated notes; Gil Rose beat this movement mostly in single downbeats.

The suite was followed by Sparkle, for piano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, contrabass, and two percussion. Chen Yi’s favored ostinato style in this work included many trills and measured tremolos, some fine woodwind arpeggios and warbles in a Ravel-like manner, and bent pitches, with the piccolo in glissando. There were some attention-catching dialogues, too, such as one between claves and marimba on the one hand, and clarinet and flute on the other.

After the intermission, we heard a third work by Chen Yi, Wu Yu, in two movements, for flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, cello and percussion. The composer explained that the title relates to a ceremonial prayer for rain, and spoke of the heterophonic style in the first movement, with all six players going in many varied and multi-rhythmic layers without pause for five minutes or more; the harmony was solidly pentatonic on D, E, F-sharp, A and B, gravitating toward A major but with many chromatic tones thrown in here and there. This heterophony is not much like Debussy’s in the middle of the first movement of La mer for instance, but is more typically Asian in origin even though designed for Western instruments. The second movement, according to the composer, reflects the drumming style of the countryside of northern China but it sounded more like heavy industry; like the composer’s other works on the program, it was dominated by relentless fast repeated notes, and the percussionist working overtime on drums, cowbells, and metal sheets.

Judith Weir’s Tiger under the Table, in two movements, concluded the program. This was for the full chamber ensemble, identical in size to the core group of Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances except for the absence of a harmonium. I never understood the significance of the title and there were no program notes, but I certainly liked the assortment of sounds, from the snapped contrabass and staccato bassoon at the beginning, to the loud bursts of polychords and smears that kept interrupting throughout. The composer might have denied that the first movement, “Energico, was in G minor, but I found it inescapable.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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  1. To clarify, the percussion instruments used for Wu Yu were bass drum, tom tom, chinese cymbal, and 2 chinese opera gongs. All of them were muted in some fashion, which why some of the sounds may have been mistaken for cowbells.

    Comment by Craig McNutt — December 14, 2010 at 1:40 pm

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