Under the leadership of Richard Pittman, Boston Musica Viva closed its 46th season in Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall on Saturday evening with four contemporary works. Sebastian Currier’s Whispers (1996), Chou Wen-chung’s Ode to Eternal Pine (2009) and Franco Donatoni’s Arpège (1986) served as preface to the premiere of Shirish Korde’s 2015 Kala Chakra. The thoughtful setup challenged the ensemble to perform with clarity and precision, garnering standing ovations from a packed auditorium.
In opening remarks, Pittman explained how Saturday’s concert served as vehicle to Korde’s premiere. The pieces were selected to draw from a multitude of musical traditions, the American and Italian heritages of Currier and Donatoni perhaps being the most familiar. Currier’s Whispers is a single-movement high-powered romp that at times borders on the frenetic; scored for piano (Aaron Likness), flute (Ann Bobo), cello (Jan Mϋller-Szeraws), and percussion (Robert Schulz), it sharply delineates each of the voices in a cohesive, subtly nuanced counterpoint. Although I found it sometimes manic, there is also something deeply meditative in Whispers as a whole when broken down to its individual voices. BMV shone, particularly cellist Jan Mϋller-Szeraws, who played with vigor and sensitivity, maintaining a rich line. Whispers stood in sharp contrast to Arpège, which—similar to Currier—revels in the individuality of the instrumental line. But the approach in Donatoni’s late work is somehow more intricate, reveling in a stark pointillism that ultimately serves to unite the piece as a whole. Gabriela Diaz (violin) joined the ensemble.
Ninety-one-year-old Chou Wen-chung’s Ode to Eternal Pine is certainly less familiar ground compared with these pieces. His oeuvre shows off its non-Western sonorities and instrumentation (the composition was scored originally for a Korean instrument ensemble, subsequently rewritten for traditional Chinese instruments, on Saturday taking the form scored for piano, violin, cello, flute, clarinet and percussion). Even in conception, Ode to Eternal Pine proved unfamiliar: in his comments on it, Pittman noted that Wen-chung views the relationships among its five movements nonlinearly. In that respect Ode to Eternal Pine was the most difficult to understand: episodes in the piece aren’t marked by individual characters necessarily, but build monumental grandeur that meditates on chong ak, the expression of human emotion as inspired by nature. The grandeur is impressive to experience, although I should admit that I found the relationship of the music to the purported structure tenuous.
These pieces set the stage well, then, for Korde’s Kala Chakra, which fluidly moves among multiple traditions. Its Sanskrit title translating as “time cycles,” the nine-movement set for tenor, soprano and small orchestra plays with rhythmic motifs in the Indian tāla system at its core: cycles of rhythms based on two and three beats are augmented and diminished in intricate games throughout the work. More expansively, the song cycle takes the ever-changing (yet cyclical) nature of time as its subject. Music from China, India, jazz, and folksongs from Eastern Europe all wend their way together in the nine separate movements that vary in texture and form, presenting meditations on the seasons, the passing day, or the systematic returns of improvisation, in both jazz and Indian classical music, each of these being cyclic repetitions that highlight underlying change. Perhaps the only constant is three repeated movements at the beginning, middle, and end, stark exceptions to the song cycle’s stark thesis. That change is the only constant. But the stasis of these passages is shattered by a revelatory tabla cadenza in the final return of the refrain. The cycle is remarkably authentic and effortless, transitioning among different genres and cultures, and serving as a convincing meditation on the universality of sameness and change.
Kala Chakra took full advantage of all of BMV’s forces, supplemented with tabla, sheng (a traditional Chinese woodwind, cousin of the Japanese shō), and tenor and soprano. Significant vocal work was done by soprano Gitangali Mathur, who, although at times sounding thin and undersupported, should be commended nonetheless on the the span of her training, easily transitioning from Carnatic recitation to Western song. Tenor Wu Tong, performing Po Chu Yi’s Single Light in the fifth movement, pours forth a supple, plaintive sound that melded beautifully with the subdued sonorities of the setting. Tong was also featured prominently on the sheng, particularly in almost polyphonic improvisatory passages of the third movement. Sandeep Das was also a feature of the evening, not only in the significant tabla writing throughout, but also in a stellar concluding cadenza in which he duels on tabla against spoken Carnatic rhythmic challenges that he poses to himself. The resultant thrilling battle brought the song cycle to a most satisfying close.