in: Reviews

January 25, 2011

BMOP Tackles Double Concertos with Trouble

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The double concerto, pace Brahms, is a creature of the Baroque era, really a special version of the concerto grosso with a concertino of only a couple of players blending with and emerging from the ripieno. The restructuring of large-scale composition around sonata form deprived composers of the natural recurrences of melodic strands that fueled the concerto grosso, making solo concertos a more logical way to achieve timbral contrast within the continual-development process of the more modern forms; yet, some Classical-era composers could not let go. The more forward-thinking of them, like Beethoven in his Triple Concerto, retained the multiple soloists as a single unit — in that particular case, a standard piano trio — and played it as if it were a single soloist with internal subdivisions. To remark that Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is among that master’s least successful concerted works is a strong indication of the problems that have continued to beset those few brave or foolhardy souls who have followed in its wake. Brahms’s profound ambivalence about his own multi-solo concerto, worrying over matters of balance in sound and equity of spotlight distribution, have not been resolved, even as the 20th century dissolved the structural boundaries impeding recourse to older (and of course newer) ideas of form.

What an interesting idea it therefore was on the part of Boston Modern Orchestra Project Music Director Gil Rose to have a program consisting entirely of 20th- and 21st-century double concertos. With the perhaps inevitable — and unconsciously prescient — title of “Double Trouble,” BMOP presented at Jordan Hall on January 22 four such works (three really, since one of them had no soloists and reverted to an even older model) by Michael Tippett, Harold Meltzer, Mathew Rosenblum, and Stephen Paulus. For this venture, Rose brought forth a stellar array of soloists as well: bassoonists Ronald Haroutunian and Adrian Morejon, trumpets Terry Everson and Eric Berlin, and, in the one unmatched concerto, baritone saxophonist Kenneth Coon, and percussionist Lisa Pegher.

The first work on the program was the outlier, Tippett’s 1938-9 Concerto for Double String Orchestra. Taking its cue from numerous Baroque predecessors, this piece divides the orchestra into two bodies arrayed to either side of the conductor. We have commented previously on the particulars and the success vel non of Sir Michael’s effort, in what remains one of his most popular works. We can and will say here, however, that Rose kept a firm hand and a vigorous tempo going in the outer movements and breathed into the slow movement the pastoral spirit of Vaughan Williams, Butterworth and Finzi, punctuated by Tippett’s characteristic blue-note inflections. We did perceive a deficit in dynamic contrast, both within and among the movements, but on the plus side, appreciated Rose’s ingratiating way with the folksier elements of the finale.

For logistical reasons, Rose altered the printed program order so that the Tippett string-orchestra piece was followed by Harold Meltzer’s Full Faith and Credit, a 2004 concerto for two bassoons and string orchestra. The title, taken from Article Four of the U.S. Constitution, betrays the original conception of this piece as a kind of social-policy statement in support of gay marriage. The idea was for the two bassoons to operate together as a couple, with the orchestral backdrop to reflect their reception by different parts of America in varying degrees hostile to their union. The movement titles play to this, replacing tempo indications with things like “Rugged,” “Blistering,” “Genteel,” and so forth. To his credit, Meltzer stated in the pre-concert panel that he found trying to sustain this idea got in the way of purely musical concerns, so he ditched it. However, having said that, why belabor the audience by referring to it in the first place?

On this note, we will digress a bit to say that the intersection of art and politics is invariably fraught, with art usually the loser in the confrontation. In his otherwise excellent program notes, Robert Kirzinger went on at length, irrelevantly in the event, to discuss Tippett’s commitment to “humanitarian[ism]” informing his adherence to Communism, notably in the texts he wrote for A Child of Our Time and other oratorios and stage works — irrelevant to the Double Concerto, of course, as this was abstract music that antedated any of these overtly leftist works. That Kirzinger does not shrink in embarrassment from using the words “humanitarian” and “Communist” in the same sentence is perhaps his problem, but to drag it into a discussion of a work on which it has no bearing, just as Meltzer’s “have it both ways” remarks about what his work was — and then was not — about, illustrates the serious trouble one can get into artistically in linking work that should stand on its own to ephemeral political and social battles. The danger to audiences is that they are then served lumpy cake disguised by the powdered sugar of Political Correctness.

And so, we think, they were in the case of Full Faith and Credit. The music is pleasant enough, with bustling figures in the first and last “rugged” movements, and some Thomsonesque Americana for “Homespun.” Less successfully represented were the movements called “Viscous” and “Genteel.” More importantly, though, we couldn’t really put a finger on any arresting ideas or strongly individuated expression or dramatic developmental arc, other than the return at the end, briefly, to the material of the opening. Moreover, the bassoon, the composer informed us, is his own instrument. This is a two-edged sword: he knows how to write for it idiomatically, and this he certainly has done. What he hasn’t done is provide an insider’s insight into what more can be done than usually is. Meltzer’s concept of the soloists’ roles involves treating them as a unit, either extending one another’s phrases beyond where a single player’s breath requirements would permit, or gently accompanying or echoing one another’s lines; but it all sounded so… bassoonish in all the conventional ways. Saint-Saëns would have been happy: there was no abuse of the instrument, as he declared Stravinsky had done in The Rite of Spring. A pity, really. What fun is there in using a typecast actor unless you can play him or her against type?

The soloists, local stalwart Ronald Haroutunian and peripatetic Adrian Morejon, were admirable in tone and phrasing, and, despite their Felix-and-Oscar appearance, fully in line with the composer’s idea of the unified couple. Rose’s conducting was unfussy and understated.

After intermission it was easy to see what changes were coming, as the demure stage setup for the string ensembles gave way to a platoon of very heavy artillery — more than justifying use of the Jordan Hall stage extension. Mathew Rosenblum is from nowhere near Winnetka, but he was definitely aiming to make the big noise. His Double Concerto for baritone saxophone (Kenneth Coon, the baritone sax of the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet), percussion (Lisa Pegher, a globe-trotting soloist of increasing prominence) and orchestra, received its premiere at this concert. The orchestra, of nearly Mahlerian proportions, included three percussionists of its own. The work itself, in five unnamed movements, struck us as a gallimaufry of strands and effects hung on a framework of a couple of returning ideas (a ritornello, if you like): a saxophone multi-phonic — very ably, securely and loudly played by Coons — and a descending scalar idea in the orchestra (and sometimes the percussion, which for pitched work switches off between marimba and vibraphone). The entire work therefore becomes something like an extended rondo. The intervening episodes throw out many diverse passages, some suggesting Shostakovich sequenced crescendi, in a probably-not-but-suggestively-tonal harmonic ambience.

The solo instruments being what they were, one expected and got a sound heavily influenced by jazz, and perhaps rock as well. Nevertheless, it was sometimes more exciting to watch than to listen to them, with Coons writhing and wailing (sometimes, amazingly, inaudibly above the orchestral din) and Pegher leaping gymnastically across her far-flung set. The music was certainly kinetic, but we were again left at a loss for figuring out where it was coming from or going, and why; the recurring ideas provided superficial grounding, but their return always seemed arbitrary and unprepared. There was something like a cadenza for the soloists — who gave every sign of being fully in command of what must have been exceptionally hard parts — that built to a sadly trivial thump-bump-a-dump-dump pattern on the drums. Emblematic, perhaps, of a work that somehow got lost musically in its desire for effect. Praise, however, goes not only to the soloists but to Rose, who certainly gave the impression of keeping the sometimes unruly orchestral proceedings decently on track.

It took additional time to reset the stage for Stephen Paulus’s 2003 Concerto for Two Trumpets and Orchestra, so he was dispatched to the stage to vamp. He repeated a story he told in the pre-concert panel of how he wrote the work for Doc Severinsen and the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal trumpet, Manny Laureano. After it was finished, Severinsen had inquired why there was no cadenza. Paulus duly found a spot in the finale where the soloists could improvise one, which, after some back-and-forth, they did, with improvised interjections from the orchestra, to great acclaim at its premiere performances. Having thus whetted our appetites, Paulus then conceded that there would be no such cadenza at this concert. Having thereby unaccountably let the audience down after an elaborate build-up (with its implicit knock on the evening’s soloists, the estimable locally-based teachers and performers Terry Everson and Eric Berlin), he left us hard put to approach the performance itself with at the enthusiastic anticipation it might otherwise get. And it really should’ve done so: Stephen Paulus is one of America’s better known composers, a founder of what is now the American Composers’ Forum, the creator of some ten operas, a much acclaimed practitioner of neo-tonalism whose work is not yet often heard in the Boston area.

Paulus’s concerto, in the conventional three movements, begins with a long-breathed trumpet line, to a largely scalar string accompaniment. The pattern reverses and proceeds to a slower, lyrical passage. (Goodness! one thought, is this going to be in sonata form?) The pace picks up; there are many fine flourishes in the trumpets and much bustle in the (big) orchestra. By this point we were beginning to have some doubts: the writing is polished and smooth, bordering on the facile. Passages succeed one another, but do not coalesce into a narrative: rather, it’s much like a movie score — but what were we supposed to be seeing?

The slow movement, called “Elegy,” was written, the composer said, in memory of his brother. It begins affectingly. The clarion-like trumpets are like sentinels, and there was promise of something deeply moving. Didn’t happen. A faster middle section gave us too much that was similar to the tone of the first movement. By the time the opening music returned, close —too close— to the end, the spell was broken. The finale was marked “Dance,” and it kept a lively, though — save for one almost samba-like passage — not especially dance-like rhythm. (But we confess unfamiliarity with how they dance in Minnesota.) Again, the trumpets obliged with flowery flourishes, and there were several spots where the orchestra built up to a big tonic chord, which should have, but didn’t, presage some new rollicking or lyrical material. This was the place where the improvised cadenza would have been welcome, and we very much wished it had been there. Everson and Berlin performed brilliantly, with golden tone and pure lines; the orchestra was sonically radiant; Rose was limber and nuanced in direction; the audience gave everyone a warm, enthusiastic round of applause. We were as close as we have ever come, at a concert performance, to anger.

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.

3 Comments

  1. Who exactly is “we” in your review, you and who else? Certainly not I, who thought the Rosenbloom was colorful and novel and the Meltzer masterful in rhythm and tune. No arguments on the Paulus.

    Comment by Alex Cohen — January 26, 2011 at 12:27 am

  2. Why does the review refer to “we”? Who does that represent, the whole audience? I, for one, thought the Rosenbloom was colorful and novel, and the Meltzer masterful in use of rhythm and tune.

    Comment by Alex Cohen — January 26, 2011 at 12:36 am

  3. Dear Mr. Koven,

    What we first think when we read your reviews: “Did Vance Koven poll the audience in the lobby? Did he discuss this performance with his date (did he in fact have a date)? Was he trying to reconcile conflicting thoughts in his own mind?” On second thought, we have encountered the editorial “we” in other places, particularly The New Yorker: “An hour later, when we were in the front seat of a cab heading crosstown and Matt and his cello were riding in back, we turned around and asked if he could tell us about his instrument…” (The New Yorker, May 2 1988, via Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage). Just as performers have some latitude to pursue their own sound, style, and interpretation of the composer’s expressive intent, so too is a writer entitled to use the editorial “we.” We were also in the audience for this enjoyable and stimulating BMOP concert, and while we are not in agreement with all of your comments in your review (ex., we did not come close to anger), we appreciate the detail and understanding that goes into your writing. If it is your personal preference, go on using the editorial “we,” we look forward to reading more reviews by all of you.

    Comment by Earl Warren — January 26, 2011 at 4:49 pm

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