In another masterstroke of imaginative programming for which it is renowned, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, under Music Director Gil Rose, offered a day-late billet-doux to the sultriest member of the string family at Jordan Hall on February 15th. “Voilà! Viola!” consisted of five works featuring the viola, four of them as soloist and one for an ensemble of eight. (one will have to come up with a clever collective noun for this).
The latter came first, in the form of Gordon (Percival Septimus) Jacob’s Suite for Eight Violas. Jacob (1895-1984) was a composer whose works deserve serious revival. Though born in London, he represented the final generation (along with the sadly shorter-lived Gerald Finzi) of what might be termed the English pastoral tradition, whose most famous exponent was Ralph Vaughan Williams. Jacob studied with Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music, and eventually joined its faculty. His output was quite large, including some lighter works and orchestrations of popular music that condemned him to condescension from later avant-gardists. Nevertheless, there is much of substance in Jacob’s output (his sextet for piano and wind quintet is a masterpiece) that stands up well—better than a lot of the posturing and attitudinizing exhibited by his successors.
Be all that as it may, the suite is a fascinating little gem intended for the entire viola section of an orchestra, much as Villa-Lobos’s first and fifth Bachianas Brasileiras were scored for an entire cello section. Unlike Villa-Lobos, who was a cellist, Jacob was not a violist, though his wife was, whereby hangs a tale informing some of the other repertory in BMOP’s program, a sort of unofficial Valentine’s Day gesture. In four movements, the suite essays a mix of lush sonorities, showcasing the viola’s full expressive range, with rigorous formal command. The opening “Dedication” puts a modal tune through some strict contrapuntal paces; the “Scherzo and Drone” features galloping rhythms and a country-bumpkin trio; the “Chorale” is somber without gloom, and the closing “Tarantella” seemed more like a jig than its demonic namesake. Rose led the ensemble with precision and attention to the registral balances, but, it must be said, rather little sparkle or charm; the performance seemed too perfunctory for its content
The first concerted work of the evening followed, the Serenade No. 1 for Viola and Chamber Ensemble by George Perle (1915-2009). Having developed a fascination for Schoenberg and Berg early on, Perle settled on a style that has been called “twelve-tone tonality,” synthesizing serialism with Hindemithian tone and chord hierarchies. This serenade, from 1962, is a good example of the sound, and is a most attractive work. It is principally, if not entirely, constructed around the opening memorable motif—melodic transparency and shapeliness being hallmarks of Perle’s esthetic—and takes it for an engaging and colorful ride. The scoring is shrewd—the viola is offset against an ensemble of eight winds and brasses, double bass and percussion, the latter comprising a pop-style drum set and a few small hand pieces. The music’s influences are skillfully deployed: a slow movement reminiscent of Bartók night music, a sometimes jazzy scherzo, a finale that pits a 6/8 rhythm straight from Hindemith against a 2/4 accompaniment, with these elements tossed between soloist and ensemble. In the middle is a “Recitative” that is a kind of cadenza lightly accompanied by solo clarinet (Amy Advocat) and, at the end, by a gradual accretion of the other instruments.
The soloist was Wenting Kang, currently an NEC master’s student under Kim Kashkashian, but becoming widely known on concert stages. Her playing was elegant, precise and not without expressive intensity, especially in the “Recitative.” She does, however, lack great power of projection (a problem inherent in the acoustics of the viola), which Rose sadly didn’t notice, as he often let her be covered by the ensemble.
The first half ended with the first of two premieres on the program, Chinary Ung’s Singing Inside Aura, which he reluctantly allows to be called a viola concerto, but which has little formal connection with the Western concerto tradition. In the pre-concert panel discussing the program, featuring Ung, Donald Crockett and Chen Yi, Ung explained his title with respect to the “aura” he creates by having instruments operate in pitch areas far away from the soloist’s, allowing an expressive zone for the soloist in the middle. The singing part is rather more literal: Ung has recently taken up exploring the notion of a soloist as a self-accompanist, in the tradition of folk and popular styles of many cultures. Here he has given the violist—his wife, Susan Ung (he joked that a great way to increase the viola repertoire is for composers to marry violists, pointing up the connection to Jacob, whose works also include a sonata and two concertos for viola)—a vocal part as extensive as the instrumental one, and has also called for orchestra musicians to whistle while they work. There was no printed text to this vocalizing—we heard disembodied syllables, phonemes and sometimes full words in various languages. Ung also solved the acoustical problem by miking the soloist (one doesn’t often see a classical soloist walking on stage and getting plugged in).
All this talk about technique, background and associations can be a pitfall for composers who are too diffident to say much about their work’s musical substance. In Ung’s case the reticence hid an emotionally compelling, collar-grabbing piece. Like the Perle, Aura opened with an arresting motif, which introduced music creating a soundscape alluding not only to Asian (Ung was born in Cambodia), but to Middle Eastern, South American, and even Appalachian, cantillation and sonority. One can talk about manipulating notes and textures, but a great work must make a direct affective connection to the audience, which this one did on both a local and cumulative basis. This one’s a keeper.
The instrumental solo part is perhaps not as virtuosic, in isolation, as in conventional concertos, but Susan Ung, who makes this kind of vocal-instrumental combination a specialty, performed both parts together in an act of supreme virtuosity, with intensity and power. Rose, obviously also fully engaged, led a slam-bang and well-shaped orchestral performance.
One premiere followed another, with the second half commencing with Crockett’s Viola Concerto, completed last year. It was commissioned by the Jebediah Foundation (which also commissioned the Ung) for BMOP and its soloist, Kate Vincent, whose Firebird Ensemble had commissioned from its progenitor the 2009 chamber work, to airy thinness beat. The scaling up was not merely a matter of orchestration, as Crockett added a movement and expanded musical ideas. You can read more about it in Nolan Eley’s BMInt interview with Rose and Vincent here.
Most concertos in the European tradition since the Classical period have three movements, with an opening sonata-allegro and no scherzo. Crockett’s concerto has four movements, no sonata form, and two scherzos. The first of them begins the work, with a downward-thrusting motif (nobody, it seems, writes fully-formed themes any more) that fuels the movement. The writing skillfully keeps the soloist away from most of the major orchestral tutti, thereby end-running the balance problem (not that this was necessary, as Vincent’s projection was up to all orchestral assaults). The movement, which ends on what seems like an aborted cadenza (the composer toys with this idea several times), had many fine touches of orchestral sonority. One of the sonic features of the work, which Crockett described in the pre-concert session, is the stress on the viola’s upper register, and the contrast between the viola timbre in that range and that of the violin. This was demonstrated in the second movement, where Vincent and concertmaster Gabriela Diaz played off one another to nice effect. Vincent’s upper range is bright and clear, putting paid to all those who have called this region’s sound thick and ungainly. The third movement is the second scherzo (not called that, but rather “Heavy and energetic”), whose robust opening is reminiscent of a lot of 1940s American music from, say, Schuman and Ward. Here Crockett explores another timbral trick, taking the viola and “extending” its range in association with the violin and the cello (Rafael Popper-Keizer). Another semi-cadenza brings the return of the concerto’s opening material before a surprisingly subdued close. The finale, yclept “Fast and furious,” starts out that way but contrasts it with some somber passages that in the end prevail. As in the Ung, Rose seemed highly engaged, and pursued clarity and precision to excellent effect.
According to the distinguished Chinese-American composer Chen Yi, she had not heard a performance of her 1983 viola concerto Xian Shi since she left China over 20 years ago until its US premiere last year (but you can see one from the 2011 Thailand International Composition Festival here). It was, she said, the first viola concerto written in China, done as her undergraduate graduation piece from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Its name actually translates as “tone poem,” which is a little confusing in light of the Western use of that term, but it also refers specifically to a type of folk ensemble piece from Chen’s native southern China. In a single movement that combines sonata, rondo and variation characteristics, it has a bright, ebullient, popularizing sort of sound with folk-like elements, and, to quote Robert Kirzinger’s program note, “progressive orchestral techniques—unsynchronized figures, indeterminate pitches, and graphic gestures meant to create a complex and constantly changing texture…” In other words, all the bells and whistles (and gongs and clacks) one would expect to show off orchestrational and compositional prowess. It doesn’t sound a lot like Chen’s work of recent decades, but within its socio-historical context it is well conceived and was expertly presented. Soloist Lizhou Liu gave a powerful, gung-ho performance with brilliant execution of the many difficult passages and techniques, and gorgeous harmonics in the lyrical sub-theme. Absent any attempt on Chen’s part to orchestrate around the viola’s natural shyness, Liu shone through pure brute force, on top of his grand technique. Rose and the orchestra dug into the sheer physicality of this music, which was an excellent show-ender.