in: Reviews

September 25, 2017

BMV Thriller at Tsai

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Carter’s Kudos (Photo credit: Michael J. Lutch)

With the aptly titled “Carter’s Mirror and Hoffer’s Concerto,” Boston Musica Viva opened its 49th Season at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center on Saturday. Under the baton of Richard Pittman, the core ensemble of Ann Bobo on flute, William Kirkley on clarinet, Robert Schulz on percussion, Geoffrey Burleson on piano, Danielle Maddon on violin, and Jan Müller-Szeraws on cello, joined later by several other members for the finale, combined lesser-known modern works with one from a 20th-century titan, Elliot Carter. Two of the four composers attended: Bernard Hoffer for the premiere of his clarinet concerto Concerto di Camera IV and Cambridge resident John Aylward for his duet Ephemera.

Hannah Lash’s Pierrot Ensemble work from 2012, Subtilior, Lamento, derives its name from its two movements. Considering that the majority of the audience had little knowledge of the meaning of Subtilior, Pittman took some time to explain that Lash derived it from the French renaissance compositional style Ars Subtilior (Subtle Art), heavily based around horizontal lines and rhythmic complexity. In her manifestation of those ideas, Lash creates an almost simplistic melodic figure and creates interest from a shifting canon that begins on the first upbeat or second downbeat. Further heightening the awareness of the subject material, her orchestration maps most instruments into a unison figure that tended to favor Maddon and Müller-Szeraws on the strings. The winds, especially Bobo on flute, became hard to hear at certain points, and one has to wonder if that had been intentional. In translation, the canon became harder and harder to decipher. The second movement made far better use of the color palette available to the Pierrot Ensemble, beginning with Müller-Szeraws on a passionate and mournful solo echoed by Maddon. The material then moved to duets between, more often than not, flute/violin and clarinet/cello, accompanied by Burleson and Schulz (playing exclusively tubular bells) as they created a blended texture, where the piano acted as an extension of the tubular bells. Lamento used the colors inherent to the winds and strings more liberally, taking chances in blending together to make composite line as well as leaving instruments to independence. Duet passages of cello and clarinet stood out as great writing as well as excellent musicianship. In effect, the work as a whole became stronger as time went on.

Bernard Hoffer’s new commission, Concerto di Camera IV, gave Kirkley a chance in the spotlight. Supplemented by a full complement (Clarinet in B-flat, Bass Clarinet in B-flat, and Clarinet in E-flat), Kirkley demonstrated his mastery of technique on the instruments, blending registers and extreme leaps together into a single line that appeared to be no challenge at all to him. The first movement, “Fantasy Sonata,” saw Kirkley only on Clarinet in B-flat as Hoffer struggled with the concept of a modern day contemporary sonata. Hoffer used the chance to extend the instrumentation of the Pierrot, having Schulz playing on a full setup of percussion (such as marimba, suspended cymbal, bass drum, and others) while Bobo doubled on bass flute as well as the standardized C flute. Structurally, the incessant clarinet writing helped to shape the material for each section of the sonata via long passages, seamlessly blending group and solo to give the audience the ability to understand the large-scale form. The writing and execution from all the musicians led to a playful romp through an ostensibly rigid classical framework that demonstrated the power that the BMV can possess if written for carefully. Taking a detour from what might have become classical symphonic form, the second movement was a scherzo titled “Two-Tone Scherzo,” taken from the conceit of using only a dyad (D and F) to make up the pitch content. Kirkley transferred over to bass clarinet for the section, chiefly because Hoffer knew that D and F would allow the entire range of the bass clarinet to be utilized (Hoffer made sure the audience knew this fact in the program notes). Due to the rigidity of the pitch material, Hoffer had to make use of other means of control, such as texture and registration of each instrument; funnily enough, Hoffer delved into a jazz swing section in the scherzo to liven up the sound world, utilizing Schulz on drum kit to extend the palette. While the ensemble playing certainly deserved commendation, in how it supported Kirkley’s solo and echoed it meaningfully, the extreme limit of pitch lead to the work becoming slightly stale by the end, despite some creative texture changes.

Hoffer’s third section, “Adjacencies,” mainly came from a dream the composer woke up from where he heard two nondescript instruments playing in harmony of the minor second, as he described before the audience heard it. Such is the general idea: members play lines that focus on the minor second and, by logical extension, major seconds, adjacent to one another. In order to continue the concept, Bobo played responsive passages to Kirkley’s soloist line, creating almost a pseudo-duet between the two while the violin and cello played passages centered around glissandos, distorting and tempering the extreme dissonance effectively. What made the passage unique from other crunchy, new-music-like concepts came in the form of Burleson on piano, who played triadic harmony and startled the audience into contextualizing the dissonances that had been grown accustomed to over time. It felt refreshing to hear something as familiar as a C major triad in open voicing stand out amidst a sea of dissonance; Hoffer must be commended heavily for the feat. As a result, for this movement, Kirkley subordinated his solo playing, focusing on everyone else for a while; in a way, he made a bold choice to take some of the focus off the soloist for an entire chunk of a solo work and lead to a short instance of relief. The final section, “Tomfoolery,” utilized all three of the clarinets at Kirkley’s disposal interspersed with outbursts from the accompanying quintet to allow time for Kirkley to change. As described in the program, Hoffer wanted to create a jazz piece with riffs from the orchestra to accompany. Suffice to say, he did, and the choices were rather effective. Kirkley managed to cycle through his collection twice, showcasing the power of the extended clarinet and his ability to control each of them with precision and care, even the notoriously ornery Clarinet in E-flat. The finale directed all attention on Kirkley, who showed his mastery of the instruments while the orchestra responded in kind, reminiscent of the extended improvised solos of the big band era (going so far as to imitate a jazz combo complete with walking bass line, substituting Müller-Szeraws on cello for the absent bass). Easily, Concerto di Camera IV took a romp through remembrance and was a playful reminder that these forms, and the lively members of Boston Musica Viva, are certainly unafraid to take themselves less seriously sometimes.

Cambridge resident John Aylward’s bass clarinet and cello duo, Ephemera, takes form from small gestures and accompanying tremolos; Aylward created a duet where response is king. Kirkley and Müller-Szeraws imitated each other with extreme care and focus, bass clarinet echoing the cello’s tremolos using flutter tongue and cello mirroring the bass clarinet’s pointillistic entrances with relative ease. The final effect constituted a completely organic mixture of two very different voices acting not as blocks of solo and accompaniment but as one singular unit of ever shifting focus. We could tell that the performers were also getting really involved; at several points, Müller-Szeraws physically shook as he played the tremolos, his entire body getting invested in the act. Prior to the performance, Aylward commented to the audience that his work reminded him of a passage from “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by poet William Butler Yeats:

“And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream,
And caught a little silver trout.”

Primarily based off the image of the moth-like stars flickering out, Aylward’s intuition is very much correct in that the listener can imagine such poetic verse to the duet.

A Mirror on Which to Dwell by 20th-century master Elliot Carter closed the show. Based on the poetry of Massachusetts native Elizabeth Bishop, oboist Peggy Pearson, violist Noriko Futagami, bassist Carolyn Davis Fryer, and soprano Zorana Sadiq joined the Boston Musica Viva core for a venture far into the depths of new complexity. Overall, Sadiq’s subdued and haunting singing echoed the character of the texts well in the idea of separation and observation of life from a distance. The only problem came from Tsai Performance Center’s tendency to favor the instruments far more than Sadiq, sometimes engulfing her within the sound mass behind her. Anaphora undulates with a stream of consciousness from the ensemble, aided by use of extended range instruments like the bass flute from Bobo to create an early morning cacophony described in the opening lines: “Each day with so much ceremony/begins, with birds, with bells/with whistles from a factory…” As stated before, occasionally, Sadiq becomes obscured by the chamber orchestra, however that might be Carter’s intent here in places. “Argument” allowed a sparser instrumentation with short gestures spouting from the low instruments like the cello, bass, and bass clarinet, aided by percussion and the low register of the piano. By steering clear of Sadiq’s natural tessitura, the text became easier to decipher from the argument happening below her. “Sandpiper” saw Pearson on oboe vocalize the bird in question as Sadiq sang about the sandpiper’s preoccupation free from the world around it. The embedded string trio occasionally overpowered Sadiq, but the more syllabic text setting afforded her the opportunity to enunciate over the strings and stay in tandem with the sandpiper oboe, creating a very oblique but satisfying duet.

Bernard Hoffer

In “Insomnia,” the group truly shone together. The reduced instrumentation and spaced out accompaniment once again steered clear of Sadiq, allotting her to declare the text which it illustrated. Here Sadiq also best showcased her textural sensitivity, seeming mournful in the middle of the night as she stared at her reflection in the mirror and contemplated her place amidst the darkness (the work’s title “A Mirror on Which to Dwell” had been derived from this poem). Sadiq must be lauded. Easily, the delivery of this song was the strongest of the cycle. “View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress,” nostalgic to maestro Pittman from his days in the service bands, did not fare so well, as the increased use of the colors on stage became too much for Sadiq to carry through, resulting in the vocalist being near inaudible. Luckily our program allowed us to track the poem. The admirable text painting could only be faulted for its tendency to overpower in Tsai. “O Breath (from Four Poems)” rounded out the cycle in the vein of “Insomnia,” where small reductions in instrumental voices, chiefly by muting the string instruments, allowed Sadiq to deliver the text clearly. The almost speech-like setting created a middle ground between mystical and introspective. Without a doubt, “O Breath (from Four Poems)” reflected the character of the text in the accompaniment superbly, while not succumbing to tropes in order to overemphasize the words. Though hampered by Tsai, the execution of this last work stands as a vivacious testament to the considerable BMV’s incredible interpretative acumen.

NEC graduate student composer Ian Wiese, a new-aficionado, loves attending and supporting concerts of living composers’ music and the ensembles that champion them.

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