Whether he plans for an orchestra of 100 for Korngold or 20 for Bach, Gil Rose can be counted upon to lead Boston’s best players in fresh directions. His Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) continues its 20th-anniversary season with six modern takes on the latter: the “New Brandenburgs,” six works commissioned as responses to Bach’s six namesake concertos, resulted from a four-year project by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. On Friday January 22nd at 8pm (preconcert talk at 7pm) BMOP will give the Boston premieres of Brandenburg Gate (inspired by Bach’s No. 2) by Paul Moravec, Muse (inspired by No. 3) by Christopher Theofanidis, Little Moonhead (inspired by No. 4) by Melinda Wagner, Sea Orpheus (inspired by No. 5) by Peter Maxwell Davies, and Concerto with Echoes (inspired by No. 6) by Aaron Jay Kernis, and (a repeat performance of ) A Brandenburg Autumn (inspired by No. 1) by Stephen Hartke.
LE: The conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra commissioned the six “New Brandenburg” over several years. Do these homages to J. S. Bach evoke specifics from the master? And is there any sense that the new composers have been listening to one another?
GR: The most specific thing is the instrumentation, how each composer features the instruments that Bach did in each of the concertos. Some are closer to Baroque style than others, but each is unique, and I don’t imagine that the composers listened to anybody but their own muses and the Cantor of St. Thomas.
Is there more of an expectation that they be performed in a single concert than has been with the originals?
I think these works, like the Brandenburgs, can be performed separately as well as a unit. The trick with these works as well as the originals is finding the right order to perform them in. The numerical order does not work for the originals, nor does it here. I have come up with an order different from what Orpheus used; we’ll see if it works.
Will BMOP be performing with larger forces than Orpheus?
No, exactly the same. The instruments required are very specific, in other words, exactly the same as the Bach originals. For instance, there’s a trumpet in No. 2, a solo harpsichord in No. 5, and number 6 has four independent violas and no violins. Not to mention, variously, flutes oboes and horns.
Will you be sitting this one out since the pieces were intended for a conductorless orchestra?
What makes this gig appropriate to the New Year month time slot?
Nothing in particular. I think next year I will undertake a concert that explores Beethoven in a similar way.
Does BMOP have a relationship with Orpheus?
Have other groups presented the six pieces?
Not to my knowledge. This is only the second time this has been attempted.
Do you intend an original Bach as an encore? How about a Stokowski version?
Not enough players on this gig to do any of the Stokowski arrangements but I would love to take them on some day.
Does Bach occupy some place at your artistic core?
Yes, as it should every musician. Several Bach works have always been some of the most important to me: the St. Matthew Passion, Goldberg Variations, and of course the Brandenburg Concertos. Their exuberance and free-spirited quality are infectious and inspiring. What better way to offer listeners a chance to make connections between the new music of Bach’s day and of ours?
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In 2006, Orpheus began the New Brandenburg Project, an effort to commission six diverse composers in succession, each of whom was asked to use one of the Brandenburgs as a departure point. Bach provided both the inspiration for and a beguiling link between the distinguished composers, despite their highly distinctive voices. The composers were not required to make their new pieces sound like Bach’s, but they did need to stick closely to the original instrumentation. These superb and inventive pieces form a perfect set.
Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F was Stephen Hartke’s (b.1952) influence for A Brandenburg Autumn (2006). The Cantata Singers gave its Boston premiere in 2011. According to Hartke, his version emerged while living in Germany, “as something of a musical diary of my impressions of living not far from the palace of Charlottenburg, where the dedicatee of Bach’s Brandenburgs himself lived.”
Inspired by Brandenburg No. 2, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec (b.1957) composed Brandenburg Gate (2008). Moravec was moved by the world-altering events of 1989, as the Brandenburg Gate was thrown open and the Berlin Wall torn down. Like Moravec, Melinda Wagner (b.1957) makes use of the B-A-C-H (German notation for B-flat, A, C, B natural) theme, introduced by Bach himself in the monumental Art of Fugue. Wagner offers a whimsical take on Brandenburg No. 4 in Little Moonhead (2009).
Both Christopher Theofanidis (b.1967) and Aaron Jay Kernis (b.1960) took on the all-string Brandenburgs. Inspired by Brandenburg No. 3, Theofanidis makes baroque references, including to Bach’s cantata Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, in his reimagined work Muse (2007). In Concerto with Echoes (2009), Kernis slyly parts ways with the original orchestration of Brandenburg No. 6 by introducing winds in the second movement of his work.
Rounding out the set is Sea Orpheus (2009) by one of the most important and influential British composers working today, Peter Maxwell Davis (b.1934). Davies takes on the early keyboard concerto format of Brandenburg No. 5, juxtaposed with reflections on a poem by Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown.
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) is the premier orchestra in the United States dedicated exclusively to commissioning, performing, and recording music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. A unique institution of crucial artistic importance to today’s musical world, BMOP exists to disseminate exceptional orchestral music of the present and recent past via performances and recordings of the highest caliber. Founded by Artistic Director Gil Rose in 1996, BMOP has championed composers whose careers span nine decades.