David Rakowski’s Micronomicon, a piano concerto written specifically for BMV’s Geoffrey Burleson, opened Boston Musica Viva’s June 16th concert for the Rockport Chamber Music Festival at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. The first movement began with disconnected gestures from which a jaunty piano theme emerged, reflecting Burleson’s experience with jazz; the harmonies underpinning the theme incorporated a tangy dissonance into their pleasant expansiveness. Throughout the movement, Rakowski’s instrumentation was fluid and engaging, particularly in a passage where the piano and glockenspiel joined in florid passagework over a well-blended high-register ensemble accompaniment that brought out the sparkle — while keeping any piercing tones at bay. There were some moments of seemingly directionless hurly-burly, but the movement was brought to a satisfying conclusion.
The second movement was an atypical slow one built around a descending two-note motif that moves from the piano to the ensemble and back. While Burleson’s great talent was evident throughout all the varied passages in Micronomicon, I was most impressed with the depth and variety of expression he brought to a motif whose extreme simplicity would perhaps allow lesser soloists to lapse into mechanism. The third and final movement was built on an obviously funk-inspired rhythmic motif introduced by the piano. The coordination of the piano and percussion parts in these opening passages was groovy perfection. At the culmination of the movement, Burleson and percussionist Robert Schultz once again collaborated, here in a nostalgic and increasingly virtuosic melodica (a wind instrument with a piano keyboard) duet that for all its ingenuity, did not have much sense of completion. It was left for the ensemble to bring the concerto to a conclusion with a further exploration of the funky material from the beginning.
Peter Child’s setting of seven Rilke poems was a brilliantly expressive piece for the instrumentalists but unfortunately had rather conventional vocal lines that were easily overshadowed by the wonderful and varied sounds of the ensemble. Mezzo-soprano Krista River’s beautiful tone and clear German diction, alas, was not enough to elevate the pedestrian melodies. Nevertheless, Child’s Rilke Songs had much to offer. The second song, “Vergänglichkeit,” features lovely sparkling descending gestures in the ensemble juxtaposed with a chorale-like succession of sweet harmonies. The sixth song, “Mondnacht,” was equally beautiful, but it featured jagged, questioning lines and a dramatic tam-tam scrape. The vocal line in this song, while somewhat declamatory, was also the most enticing of the cycle, especially when paired with the flute. The final song, “Wilder Rosenbusch,” relied heavily on a traditional voice and piano-lied texture that owed an obvious debt to Schubert and gave the conclusion of the cycle an elegiac quality.
Ghost Dances by Nicholas Maw is billed as “an imaginary ballet for five players,” although all the theatricality comes from the creative doublings on strumstick, thumb piano, flexatone, and kazoo. Ghost Dances swings between harsh and dramatic whirling gestures bristling with activity to more settled sections saturated with nostalgia, melancholy, and a certain sinister playfulness. The first dance, “Dialogue at Night,” in particular has a lush, sensual mystery to it, like shadows at dusk. The flexatone, played enthusiastically by cellist Jan Muller-Szeraws, added a delightfully spooky edge to the atmosphere, but Maw repeats this gesture so much it became tiresome. The strumstick wielded by violinist Bayla Keyes in the second half of the suite lends similar ghostly excitement without wearing out its welcome. Keyes not only played with gusto but made the rustic instrument sound richer than a one-stringed banjo should. The strumstick material alternated with clarinetist William Kirkley on kazoo, turning the ensemble into a wildly off-kilter version of itself for these climactic passages.
After this wild section, Ghost Dances turned to a serious theme presented with an old-fashioned, ornate elegance interrupted by arid, broken gestures from the ensemble. At this point, the piece seemed to meander, lost in a morass of romanticism, until the flute and violin introduced the more rhythmic material that brought the composition to a whirling conclusion, fading away into the resonance of small bells, thumb piano, and the lowest notes of the piano. It was a fittingly ephemeral ending to a concert of inventive contrasts.