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Schoenberg “Warhorse” at BMV


Boston Musica Viva, in its 44th season now a  certifiable Boston institution, continued Friday evening in its long-standing commitment to bringing the Boston community new and almost new music from unassailable musicians. Friday evening’s concert began with a new piece by Curtis Hughes entitled Verbiage. Before the piece began, Mr. Hughes came onstage and eloquently explained that his piece was inspired by the incessant and insipid political discourse Americans have been subjected to for the better part of the past two years—many of the melody lines apparently inspired by the actual melodic contours of candidates’ one-liners. The irony is that that whereas stump speeches tend to revolve around dead horses and platitudes in order to appeal to as wide a swath of the electorate as possible, this piece was clearly not a play for the middle. Though certainly not without focused moments of gripping music, most of Verbiage wandered cacophonously and my mind wandered in kind. While it is true that the last few months have been almost unbearably cacophonous, trying to ennoble a process as noisy, hollow, and superficial as an American political campaign through music seems a tall order. If an artist creates something elegant, beautiful, and structured, the work is simply being dishonest. If the work is a sincere and successful attempt to capture the essence of campaign season, it is not likely to be much fun to listen to. Verbiage was largely the latter. Still, the performers were all tip-top (especially the remarkably precise and fleet fingered pianist, Geoffrey Burleson) and the moments where the disparate lines came together were quite affecting.

The second piece, premiered over a decade ago by Boston Musica Viva, was a setting of Pierrot Lunaire by William Kraft. Much like Schoenberg, who immortalized the poem cycle with his setting that premiered almost exactly a century ago, Kraft decided, he told us, to set music to a German translation of the French poetry.  It is interesting to imagine what the piece would have sounded like in a language as romantic as French. The cold, metallic quality of German certainly seems to ring truer to the eeriness of this work. Kraft set four poems from Giraud’s famous cycle, and between each setting was an instrumental prelude. Again, the whole piece was tonally uncompromising, but the kaleidoscopic rhythms and instrumentation effectively evoked the delirium of the text. The immersive performance was probably the highlight of the concert. Soprano Sarah Pelletier’s liquid voice humanized some very challenging music, and percussionist Robert Schluz’s innovative mastery of his instruments (at one point he bowed his vibraphone) was indispensible to the unsettling and otherworldly textures.

Finally, the only “warhorse” on the program: Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite, Op. 29. Formally, it resembles pieces written two centuries prior, but tonally, it is a work of high Schoenbergianism, replete with jaggedly stimulating moments, particularly in the second movement, where very fine use is made of a particular long-short-longer motive that winds out of control in a most mind-bending way. The third movement is a remarkable theme and variations, and though the theme is at times hard to identify, moments when one can are particularly gratifying. The musicianship was at a very high level, especially the winds, whose flawless and aggressive articulation added tremendously to the fevered anxiety of the piece.

Sam Bodkin graduated with a degree in political science from Columbia University. After working for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he is trying harness the power of social media to change the culture of classical music.

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