The major work for Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s project on Thursday at Jordan Hall was Paul Moravec’s Blizzard Voices. I’ll spare you any musings on the resonance of that title with our own climatological situation, because the weather even depicted in Moravec’s huge work for orchestra, choir and vocal sextet was incomparably violent and deadly, making our current plight quaint in comparison. The Nebraskan poet (and former American poet laureate) Ted Kooser drew on the accounts of a deadly 1888 Great Plains blizzard in his book Blizzard Voices; Moravec has combined Kooser’s laconic, compact verses, children’s songs and poetry from the time with passages from the Bible, from a story filled with death, including that of children, and escapes from death. While there is some glimmer of hope in the stories of resilience and coping—in one vignette and mother and newborn have quilted tenting over them against the snow that is blowing into the house—the predominant mood conveyed is loss. The final lines seek redemption in nature: “The wind lifting the dust/In the empty schoolyards…/That wind remembers their name.” But there’s a vacancy in this metaphor; the wind remembers nothing, and can speak nothing. This unthinking, emotional gesture brings consolation only because someone is making the effort to console.
Something like this is the emotional paradox at the heart of Blizzard Voices. Over more than an hour filled with menace and fear and anxiety, the work never drags or loses our interest, but it stands at a remove from us, though not due to any lack of craft or expertise on the part of Moravec or conductor Gil Rose or the orchestra. Every potential fault in the work seemed justifiable: the unprepared bombast of the third section depicting the blizzard felt forced, but at the same time, it did its job of suggesting the suddenness and oddness of the storm’s attack. The text-setting is especially marvelous; for long stretches it is not necessary to refer to the libretto, and the music never overwhelms the poetry. It says something for Moravec’s taste and careful touch that Voices’s first words can be taken from the book of Job without sounding heavy-handed or portentous. Kooser’s voice is matter-of-fact, documentary; tragedies are not lingered over; one might argue whether it should be set to music at all, given the risk of damaging its carefully calibrated emotional balance:
We finally had to dig
Down into a drift, wrapping
the blanket around us. Billy
died in the night. I thought he
was only asleep. At dawn,
I dug out, finding that we
Were in sight of the home place.
Setting a text inherently emphasizes it, italicizes it. Moravec has avoided distorting the poetry by avoiding surprise, by keeping the prosody close to that of spoken English, by keeping the mood close to that of the surface of the text. It is a measure of success that the stories depicted in Blizzard Voices remain in the memory well after the piece is over; it is a measure of its weakness that most of the music does not. It is a work about a winter’s catastrophe that remains cool.
The first two sections immediately establish a sense of dread and anxiety. This instrumental vision of the Great Plains reminds you of Copland’s wide-open American music without emulating it, as does its depiction of the unsettlingly warm day that was set upon by the vicious storm: “Odd weather for January…too warm, too easy.” The blizzard comes in the third section; the only histrionic moment in the work, it ends with a fragment of Psalm 142 sung by the chorus and soloists simultaneously in Latin, German, Norwegian, Swedish and Czech. Eleven sections follow, telling of deaths and near survival: many stories of being caught in a blizzard so fierce that people often died within reach of their homes. The last two sections look back with valedictory texts, beginning with a remarkable setting of Mary Frye’s 1932 “A Thousand Winds” (“Do not stand at my grave and weep…”). In its best moments it recalled “One ever stands where shelled roads part” from Britten’s War Requiem, due to its texture and the writing for tenor solo. The work calls for six soloists, giving an uncommonly wide range of tone and personality to those sections. Thursday night’s were exemplary and well chosen. Mezzo-soprano Erica Brookhyser and bass-baritone David Cushing both gave off warmth and radiance that helped salve the wounds inflicted by the text—even as they sang it. In contrast, Soprano Emily Pulley and baritone David Kravitz brought the poetry to life with a certain aggressiveness—Pulley with a bright tone that had a welcome edge, and Kravitz with an ever-so-slightly reedy resonance that gave a strong but nevertheless sensitive force to Kooser’s reportage. Tenor Matthew DiBatista made the most of “A Thousand Winds and soprano Deborah Selig was saddled with Moravec’s one setting that fails to find a convincing attitude—a character piece about a survivor bashful about the papers paying attention to her (“I was embarrassed all right!”). I would have liked to have heard more of her. The New England Conservatory Choir (Erica Washburn, director) acted as an extension of the orchestra rather than a counterpoise to the soloists. Once past the great racket of the blizzard, they and the orchestra (under Gil Rose as usual) provided sensitive accompaniment to the soloists.
The evening opened with the winner of the 2014-15 BMOP/NEC Composition Competition, Stephanie Ann Boyd’s Ondine. Its inspiration from the myth of the siren-like nymph was most audible in its oceanic qualities. The rolling sea is evoked through high drones and string glissandi in the imitative opening and closing sections, while the two main sections of the work evoked the sometimes wooly quality of Vaughan Williams’ harmony cleaned up through judicious application of Debussy. It landed easily on the ear, and Boyd displayed a deft hand with the evolution of melodic material, with techniques that bring her closer to Sibelius than to any more modern writer.
John Harbison’s Concerto for Bass Viol and Orchestra is a fascinating puzzle that was not entirely solved. The composer vigorously attacks the challenge of writing for the largest, lowest, quietest member of the string family using his considerable arsenal of compositional tools. The orchestra is large, with lots of winds and percussion, but these resources are used to create splashes of color around the bass, each new set of timbres casting the solo instrument in a new light. Rose and the orchestra did an excellent job making the sounds vivid, even though much of the work is spent exploring the far reaches of piano and below. The bass rarely commands the stage the way one typically expects in a concerto. The soloist often works in tandem with other lower instruments, and the entire bass section was asked to take a bow at the completion of the work. Soloist Edwin Barker, the dedicatee, and the principal double bass of the BSO, did not shy away from the extreme technical challenges. Harbison makes the soloist spend a great deal of time in the extreme stratosphere of the instrument, a precarious realm that, on the bass, requires the player to nearly bend double to reach the pitches. At times it looked like Barker had no fingerboard left. The three-movement work is classical in concept: an opening Lamento that had an archaic, even atavistic sound; a Cavatina that affords the soloist some lyrical moments, but never a refuge of sentiment or relaxation; and a Rondo whose returning theme was more of a series of rapid motives, requiring the listener to give some attention to be able to detect their return. The piece doesn’t quite convince. Its seeming fragility was un-helped by Barker’s uncomfortable intonation in the upper extremes of tessitura. If it is at times nerve-wracking, the concerto is never boring, and it certainly inspired the two bass students behind me who spoke of needing to leave at intermission to go home and practice.
I left the concert feeling that I had seen a tremendous amount of skill squandered on music that failed to challenge or move me. If such be the case for accessible new music, then count me out.