For the past forty-two years, Boston Musica Viva has distinguished itself by presenting works by living (or recently living) composers with a passion that comes of deep conviction. It would be every composer’s dream to have a work played with the technical precision and emotional commitment that is offered by Richard Pittman and his assembly of musicians, all of whom play at the top of their game. With that kind of performance, a composer’s work stands on its own feet. Or not. Friday night’s performance (May 6, 2011) at the Tsai performance Center was another in this long line of well-conceived and executed excursions.
The title of the program derived from the world premier centerpiece of the evening, Laura Elise Schwendinger’s Mise-en-scene (2011). But it also provided a context for the other pieces on the program. Schwendinger explained before the performance that mise-en-scene refers to all the elements (lighting, sound, props, stagecraft, etc) which create the feel and image seen in either a theater piece or a film. Her work, in nine short, continuously played movements, described a story, and even without program notes, it would have been possible to imagine what was going on onstage. She described her music as “zany,” but perhaps another term would be “looney” in the sense of the fiendishly difficult and evocative music by Carl Stallings that underpinned the familiar Looney Tunes cartoons. Schwendinger’s music was clear, delightful, and descriptive, almost an opera without words.
Lee Hyla described his Polish Folk Songs (2007), which opened the program, as the inspiration from a visit to the foothills of the Tatras mountains in southern Poland. There is a somewhat Ivesian experience of tunes colliding with one another, overlapping and sometimes ringing clearly. The second song in particular was a raucous, gypsy/klezmer-like work that used the bass clarinet — played admirably by Rane Moore — in its upper range. Whoever was singing or dancing that particular tune was a having a very good evening around the bonfire.
Andy Vores’s Air Baby (2001) was a repeat performance of a work commissioned by Boston Musica Viva. Warmly received by a friendly audience, Vores explained that he enjoyed working with difficult texts. That said, and in the context of mise-en-scene, the contrast between the frankly nauseating subject matter — larvae, blood, brutal death, loneliness — and the beautiful, though at times bland, musical material raised questions about the intent of the piece. If the aim was to raise some deep question about the contrast of beauty and ugliness, then perhaps one could consider the piece a success. If it was to provide an evocative context for the text, perhaps less so. The performance, particularly the lovely soprano of Zorana Sadiq, was nonetheless heartfelt.
The concert concluded with a masterful reading of Webern’s arrangement of Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, op. 9 (1906) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano — the “pierrot” ensemble. Schoenberg clearly understood his role as the inheritor of the mantle of the great German tradition of composition; from this distance of 105 years, it is easy to hear hints of Schubert and Mendelssohn in the music as well as the rich, over-ripe romanticism of Schoenberg’s own Verklarte Nacht (1899). The musical language still sounds fresh and daring, and marks his deep understanding of the medium in which he worked. The performance evoked the small rooms where German artists gathered to share the latest music in manageable arrangements for each other. Not unlike the small but appreciative audience present at the Tsai Center, a gathering of friends eager to hear the latest work of composers toiling in the same vein.