in: News & Features

March 17, 2014

ConNECtions Explained

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New England Conservatory’s (NEC) affiliate orchestra for new music, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) presents its 15th annual “Boston ConNECtion” concert on March 28th at Jordan Hall [click here for ticket information] featuring music by NEC students, alumni, and collaborators. This year’s program includes the Boston premiere of Accumulated Traces by 2013-14 BMOP/NEC Composition Competition winner Binna Kim; the U.S. premiere of NEC alumnus Lei Liang’s saxophone concerto Xiaoxiang with special guest saxophonist and fellow NEC alumnus Chien-Kwan Lin; Concerto for Orchestra by Steven Stucky; and Blue Earth by visiting NEC composer-in-residence Donald Crockett, with whom BMInt recently conversed.

This concert is billed as a celebration of Boston composers, yet I find nothing in your bio to put you in that category.

Actually, the concert is more a celebration of the conNECtion between BMOP and NEC, a conNECtion now in its 15th year, and that is the principal link to the region—Binna Kim is a DMA student at NEC and winner of the 2013-14 BMOP/NEC Composition Competition, and Lei Liang is an alum of NEC, as is the saxophone soloist. My direct conNECtion to NEC is my appearance as visiting composer-in-residence during the BMOP rehearsal, concert and recording session timeframe. At NEC, I will be presenting a colloquium on my music as well as a masterclass with composition students, in addition to being at the concert and preconcert talk. The recording session of Blue Earth following the concert will also be at Jordan Hall.

My other close conNECtion to the Boston region has been my work with the Boston-based Firebird Ensemble in recent years, with performances in the area, recordings, and presentation of my opera The Face [reviewed here] in fall 2012 at the Boston Conservatory of Music. Kate Vincent, director of Firebird, was also soloist in my Viola Concerto, premiered by BMOP and Gil Rose in February 2013. In general, my East Coast presence as a composer has been more extensive in Boston/New England than in New York in the past several years. I should mention also that I have been spending summers for more than a decade as the senior composer-in-residence at the venerable Bennington Chamber Music Conference at Bennington College Vermont.

Do you know the other composers on the program, and how does your piece fit?

Binna Kim interviewed successfully for the DMA program at the USC Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles, where I am chair of the composition program. I like her music very much, and we would have been happy to have her join our DMA program at Thornton. I am glad, though, that she is at NEC; it strikes me as a great fit for Binna. Congratulations to her for this featured performance on BMOP’s Boston conNECtion concert.

I am close friends with Steven Stucky—he spent more than 20 years as resident composer (with various titles) at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and we would usually get together when he was in town. I have often performed his music with my student and professional new-music ensembles in LA, and I have taken his music on tour in both California and France over the years. He has also been a strong supporter of my music, as an advocate both in Los Angeles and at Cornell, where he has taught for many years, and on the East Coast and nationally. I know Steve’s (first) concerto for orchestra well; I have a score in my office at USC which I show my students at appropriate moments. He has a clarity of texture and sense of orchestral color which are most useful models for young composers.

My piece, Blue Earth, is also a concerto for orchestra (more specifically, a sinfonia concertante). So there are three concertos of one sort or another on this concert. In the case of Lei Liang’s Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestrs (1987) [played by  Chien-Kwan Lin], the saxophone is presumably the focus, where in both my piece and Steve’s the focus is more on the orchestra at large, as featured soloist. One difference between a concerto for orchestra and a sinfonia concertante is focus: in Steve’s piece you get a clear sense of the various sections and principal players of the orchestra being displayed in featured roles by turn, with an overall sense of the entire orchestra engaging in soloist-tutti alternations: the virtuoso orchestra on display. Blue Earth has a good deal of this as well, but there is also a fixed group of seven principals, rather than one or two, who take solo roles as the piece unfolds. These musicians don’t stand in front but rather play from their places in the orchestra.

What were you thinking about when you wrote Blue Earth, in 2002? Is it programmatic?

Blue Earth was commissioned by the Charlotte Symphony and its then music director, Christof Perick. Perick was music director of the Los Angeles chamber orchestra when I was composer in residence in the 1990s, and when he took over the Charlotte Symphony he wanted a new piece to show it off; he wanted a concerto for orchestra. In consultation with him, I decided to focus on a specific group of musicians in the orchestra at the time, hence a sinfonia concertante. The instruments are principal violin (concertmaster), principal cello, principal woodwind quartet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon), and timpani. In addition, as the piece unfolds, there appear other features more typical of a concerto for orchestra, such as brass choir, double reeds, string orchestra, etc.

The piece is decidedly programmatic. When composing it, in 2002, I was thinking about our planet and about the reverse terraforming we seemed to be engaged in with extensive environmental degradation in the service of worldwide commerce. Of course, nothing much has changed in the intervening 12 years, except perhaps acceleration of the downward spiral.

There are five movements, each with a title vaguely connected to the idea: Movement I, ‘Homing’ (the ability of birds among others to migrate across vast expanses of open ocean); movement II, ‘The Four Winds’; movement III ‘Tomorrow the Sea’ (from a poem by Derek Walcott; movement IV, ‘Lament: the Blue Earth’ (a dirge on the state of things here and now); and movement V, ‘To What Listens’ (from a poem by Wendell Berry).

What should we listen for?

Blue Earth presents the seven soloists right away in an introductory passage beginning with principal cello and violin. The solo woodwinds quickly join, followed by the timpani. The orchestra starts with tutti hits which emphasize the difference between solo and tutti textures in the work.

The five movements are clearly delineated but designed to be played continuously, without pause.

In the first movement, ‘Homing,’ a clear, snappy motive is tossed around extensively, disappears, then reappears in the final section. The second movement title, ‘The Four Winds,’ is not only a somewhat poetic term but also a musical pun: the principal woodwind quartet is featured. The third movement, ‘Tomorrow the Sea,’ features a sweeping melodic figure that alternates between solo and tutti strings. The fourth movement has laments presented in several of the principals, especially violin, clarinet and cello. The timpani provide dirgelike rhythmic patterns. The final movement, ‘To What Listens,’ gradually unfolds what is essentially a single sound, increasingly complex, as if the listener were in a field hearing, with cocked head, an unknown bird from a great distance, gradually coming nearer. The movement builds inexorably to a noisy conclusion, and the opening music of the whole piece reappears in the solo violin, cello and timpani, joining the din.

Can we find it, or any works of yours, on YouTube, which give a similar impression?

To get a good sense of my orchestral music, I suggest Roethke Preludes. Other works, not orchestral, which give a good introduction to my sound world include ‘Night Scenes’ for piano trio (recorded by Firebird Ensemble, on New World) and ‘Whistling in the Dark’ for mixed ensemble (recorded by Xtet, on Albany). Samples are here.

The final words are from conductor and artistic director Gil Rose.

BMOP has a history of performing and promoting works by Boston-based composers, and once a year honors the conservatory’s prestigious composition department. Our annual Boston ConNECtion concert is a season highlight for BMOP and audiences alike. Our 15-year marriage with NEC is built on a mutual commitment to provide a platform for NEC students, faculty and alumni to stage and perform new music. Together, we’re helping shape the future of young artists.

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