Gil Rose led his redoubtable Boston Modern Orchestra Project into its 19th season with an ambitious program of pieces incorporating electronics. Surround Sound’s composers have university connections, Ronald Bruce Smith and Anthony Paul De Ritis at Northeastern University, and David Felder at Buffalo U. and wide experience composing with electronica. Deployed around Jordan Hall were at least 20 speaker arrays, including 12 onstage and 4 placed on 2 tiers in the balcony.
Each piece, we learned in an introductory interview with the composers moderated by composer/annotator Robert Kirzinger, was to utilize a subset of these speakers in different ways. The crackerjack orchestra, typically 50-strong, was supplemented by a few player/technicians manning electronic consoles both onstage and in the audience.
Smith’s Constellation, at ten minutes the shortest and most effective work, transported us at a glacial pace into deep space on shimmering tremolos, wind glissandi, and cascading mallets and keyboards. Wide-spaced octaves, buttressed with black-hole horns and electric gongs, opened yawning chasms onto an indigo forever that frightened yet somehow seemed inevitable. Huge orchestral staccatos—erected in clangorous layers enriched with pre-recorded samples and timbral extensions controlled by keyboardists—melted shimmering into tinkling stardust fallout over bleating oboe and piccolo. For all its smoke-and-mirror pyrotechnics, the piece hung suspended, without resolution, as if over eternity’s precipice. But what a ride!
Developmental (and harmonic) stasis worked less well in the world premiere of De Ritis’ Riflessioni, largely because muddying textures confused (this) listener’s auditory discrimination. A repeated real-time F-sharp from solo bassoonist Patrick de Ritis (no relation) seemed a promising starting point—fed back, tossed about, with lush comments from exotic winds (alto and bass flute, contrabassoon) and wheezy accordion—but the lines soon became blurred, indistinguishable from his pre-recorded lines. No sooner did he sync with the tape in a smooth melody with arch harmonies, then rebellious mutterings arose from the three trombones. A wild moment of relief came when de Ritis detached his reed and blew into it like a kazoo, but the piece waded on into gloomy low sustains, goose cacklings, exiing in a march of crestfallen elves. Technique trumped musicality.
Felder wrote Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux (“The Four Cardinal Times [of Day]”) for both BMOP and the Slee Sinfonietta at the University of Buffalo, where it premiered last April with the same soloists, soprano Laura Aikin and bass Ethan Herschenfeld. They sing and/or read texts by poets René Daumal, Robert Creeley, and Dana Gioia, interweaving topics of overweening triumph, social dystopia, and the existential woes of suburbia. Aikin was brilliant, Herschenfeld sonorous, Rose’s pacing and balance were controlled and polished, and the orchestra played admirably. But only at very few points during the 40-minute piece were the imposing batteries of speakers utilized in any discernible way. And when they were evident, they contributed brief spatterings of syllables behind our backs, chittering chipmunk squeals, duck-like micro-scat singing, and a spurt of mangled dada-esque vowels.
Did I miss something? Quite likely: new works seldom reveal themselves on a single listening. Whether I’d be tempted back for a second effort (not via YouTube!) is another matter. Let any blame fall on overstuffed scores, electronic imbalances, on-site technical shortcomings, or your reporter’s dim understanding of the integration of electronics into contemporary composition. I confess to have begun my musical afternoon in Harvard Square, reveling in the Honk! Festival’s rag-tag parade of 20-odd street bands from hither and yon. These brass, wind, and percussion ensembles cumulatively emitted unamplified waves of joy, simplicity, melody, and spontaneity—elements that scarcely graced the proceedings at Jordan Hall.