On Sunday night Oliver Knussen heard two of his early works performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in Jordan Hall and received an Honorary Doctorate from NEC at intermission. But the evening was also a showcase for BMOP’s three soloists: harpist Krysten Keches, clarinetist Laura Ardan, and soprano Sonja Tengblad.
Keches is the winner of the 2012-13 BMOP/NEC Concerto Competition and performed Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto (1956) with the orchestra. This is a viscerally engaging work with suspenseful string ostinati and uneasy harmonies. Often, though, it seems the solo writing doesn’t get far enough away from the harp’s historical role as a primarily decorative instrument: it’s simply moved to the front, frills and all, while the interesting stuff happens primarily in the orchestra. The third movement, however, gave Keches richer material to work with and she performed throughout with a silver tone and technical bravura.
Ardan, the Atlanta Symphony’s principal clarinetist, came to town to give the New England premiere of Michael Gandolfi’s new clarinet concerto which she originated with her hometown orchestra. Entitled The Nature of Light (2012), this is an amiable work for string orchestra and clarinet. The first movement has a pastoral quality and is quite beautiful. The string writing is heavily canonic and you can perceive a formal compositional cleverness that also gives a real expressive effect. The second movement is fluid and breathless: the only lull was an extended cadenza that felt like an obligatory feature for the soloist rather than a musical necessity. Ardan performed the work with warmth and an easy familiarity.
The evening’s absolute standout was Tengblad who navigated the soprano role of Knussen’s Symphony No. 2 (1971) with gentle poise even in the highest reaches of her voice. The Symphony’s collage of poetry by Sylvia Plath and Georg Trakl inhabits some dark spaces but the musical setting is more disquieted than disturbed. The orchestral dreamscape is rich in musical images drawn from the poetry: you can hear the rats scurry and the church bells toll. This is Knussen’s earliest acknowledged work, and given its willingness to depart from comfortable spaces, it is apparent why he would later go on to be the natural operatic collaborator for Maurice Sendak.
At the start of the program, BMOP director Gil Rose took to the podium with the orchestra split into two antiphonal sections for Knussen’s Music for a Puppet Court (1983). The left side backed a concertino group of celesta, guitar, and flutes and the right side backed a concertino group of harp and clarinets. The outer movements are based on puzzle canons by the Renaissance composer John Lloyd and sound thoroughly 16th-century apart from modern orchestrational dressings. The inner two movements riff in a contemporary idiom on the borrowed material but this relationship was not apparent to the ear on a single hearing. Regardless, this Puppet Music on the whole succeeds as a whimsical modern take on ancient music.