in: Reviews

October 31, 2017

Four Generations of Boston Sounds

by

William Schuman

Boston Modern Orchestra Project reconvened at Jordan Hall on Sunday afternoon, gifting listeners with impeccable balance, impregnable consistency, and illuminating colors. “Generations” celebrated composers of four eras with two concertantes, a tone poem, and a ballet.

William Schuman composed his best work on his way to the office, in the back of the car. He was fortunate enough to work as the president of the Juilliard School, although perhaps he was unfortunate in having the constant distraction from his composing. Juilliard bent to make the job work for him rather than the other way around, and Schuman successfully launched a difficult career in both arts administration and composition. Louisville Symphony asked Martha Graham to choreograph Judith, giving her the choice of working with whichever composer she chose—in this case, Schuman. Judith’s frequent bitonality and quintal harmonies lent BMOP to perform with grandiose phrasal gestures. The brass section brought vigor to the fervent, expanded sounds. Most compelling in the short poem was the use of counterpoint. A playful conversation between woodwinds and strings developed into a fugal section, adding a third part in the lower strings, and then deep contrast that brought the woodwind section with a strange, swinging tune that entered in the brass section. Subsequently, the canon reversed, starting with a duet between the brass and percussion (doubled in woodwinds), adding the strings and exploding into a new section. At the end of the piece, a great gust of sound whooped to the back of the hall, generating a reverberation that literally shook the room before the audience burst into applause.

Matthew Aucoin

Shrouded in a percussion-filled haze, Matthew Aucoin’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra began virtually unpitched, even the two-note piano chords sounding indistinctive upon entering. This developed into a thin-textured, descending line that pianist Conor Hanick transformed into a thought-provoking, meandering quip. At moments, the first movement battled along, aligning itself to the romanticism and dexterity of Liszt or Rachmaninov while carrying true influence from the likes of Ginastera and Ligeti. Never ceasing in its tenseness, the first movement felt like a struggle between piano and orchestra. Surprisingly, the orchestra seemed to carry more melody than the piano, which offered a rich variety of textures and colors. Nevertheless, the piano part was incredibly virtuosic, physical motions similar to a Liszt Concerto while emulating a Bartókian idea.

The second movement began with a D-flat major chord that repeated over and over (and over and over). The first two repeated notes sounded like the ghost of Schubert, but the longer it repeated, the more settled Hanick looked, and the more unsettled the audience felt. The piano inched into an exuberant expansion, transitioning into a repetitive chorale which, if the repeated notes had dissipated and harmonies changed ever so slightly, might have sounded similar to a Bach prelude. Glued together by reiterated sounds, the soloist requires an iron-clad focus, which tripped Hanick only once (very subtly) in one of the middle sections. When asked what the motivations were behind this movement, Aucoin mentioned that the first movement felt so large and so battle-like that he wondered, “What would happen if I just kept playing this D-major chord?” And so, the second movement was born out of an exhaustion and much-needed rest from the first movement. At times, it felt outright unpianistic, but its repetition created a sense of calm and familiarity that the piece needed.

The third movement brought the pianist clamoring out of the second movement, grasping to achieve a new melody, though the orchestra pulled the pianist back into the tradition of the first movement. The third movement came off like a short hiccup to finish the piece, exhausted after the long journey which Aucoin sent the orchestra and pianist. Rose’s straight, to-the-point conducting provided the orchestra with the beat that it needed and not much else; this ensemble rode the storm on its very own, its deep sense of knotted textures and ever-changing colors evident throughout the piece.

John Harbison (Jonathan Sachs photo)

John Harbison likened his Diōtima to a tone poem in its connections to German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin’s work of the same name, declaring that the piece prophesizes the mind going, creating a puzzling sense of “ecstatic vision,” demolished by the last two lines of the piece. The sense of stopping and searching never left the piece’s core, which the orchestra explored with great depth. Most interestingly, Harbison mentioned that he didn’t trust symphonic players with swinging jazz motives: everything on the page is strictly written how he’d like it to sound, escaping an assumed jazz sound that can so often become bungled in the overarching theme. His swinging rhythms, curiously, did not sound like jazz, rather a puzzled, searching lilt.

David Sanford (Tony Rinaldo photo)

David Sanford’s Scherzo Grosso, on the other hand, combined elements of a swinging jazz band, facing solo cello against a big band-style orchestra. Written in about a year after the composer heard Stravinsky’s big band piece), Scherzo combines street musicians, jazz types, cantors, and classicals. Sanford noted that no other cellist except for Matt Haimovitz could succeed. Assuming this, the expectation that the cello part would be incredibly nuanced and novel heightened, only to be deflated. The scherzo created a very strange combination of amplified sul ponticello cello, bluesy orchestra, and atmospheric strings, seeming mismatched. The fruitful third movement elevated a walking double bass with playful cello phrases and cutesy sequences. The fourth movement provided the very first pluck, as almost the entire piece been sul ponticello. Rushed at the very end, the work felt overstated, leaving minimal room for nuance in its overtly stereotypical jazz energy.

BMOP returns to Jordan Hall on Friday, December 1st, with the first performance of Norman Dello Joio’s Odyssey opera.

Rachael Fuller is an MIT administrator who has studied piano and music theory. By night, the concertgoer is also a practicing musicologist.

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