IN: Reviews

Four Composers Reflect on Trying Times


John Aylward
Eric Moe

Time has been on our collective minds a lot lately. The end of Daylight Savings Time and the “falling back” an hour will soon be upon us next month. Disney and Marvel released Loki Season 2 on Thursday, the timeline and state of the universe controlled by a cabal of bureaucrats and secret police as major plot points. But most importantly, we are still contending with the extreme loss of time, connection, education, and joy that happened during the COVID-19 Pandemic. At that juncture, conductor Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project sought to change the narrative and continue the cultivation of new works by commissioning John Aylward, Eric Moe, Richard Cornell, and Shelley Washington; the resulting works constituted the 2023-2024 organization’s season opener “Time Change” Saturday night, at Jordan Hall.

Eternal Return by John Aylward comprised of four attaca movements that all retained links to one another, forming both a four-movement suite with defined movement concepts and a single large entity. Program note writer Clifton Ingram noted how Aylward engaged with the ideas of ekpyrosis and palingenesis in the philosophy of Stoicism, reflecting the ever-constant destruction and rebirth of the universe (perhaps a reinterpretation of “The Before Times” and “The New Normal” in more colloquial language?). The first movement, “Awakenings,” highlighted quick flashes of orchestral color against constantly shifting harmonies in the orchestra, reminding this listener of Gyorgy Ligeti. Those flashes coalesced into ascending lines against activated stasis, binding the two ideas together cleanly. This movements best showcased Aylward’s skill in orchestration, masterfully pulling interesting colors out of the orchestra. “Incantation” followed, building upon the colors Aylward created by emphasizing cross-ensemble duets. Ingram noted the opening clarinets and harp, though the strings and the marimba also paired up to echo each other. There were also moments where all the brass, including the tuba, were muted, and that moment was so effective it actually made this reviewer enjoy muted tuba for once. “Music Circles” had shades of Paul Dukas in it while also making excellent use of stratification and collage in different sections. This movement is also where Rose and his clockwork conducting held the sound mass together, efficiently leading the ensemble through each layer with ease. “Shadow Procession” mixed everything that came before and succinctly reviewed all of the movements, recapitulating all of them with its own DNA before hitting a large and loud climax.

Composer Eric Moe joined Rose and BMOP as soloist for his new piano concerto The Sweetness of Despair, the Necessity of Hope. “The Sadness of Despair” started with highly consonant strings struggling against, to paraphrase Charles Ives, an “all the wrong notes are right” piano solo (this movement also maintained echoes to Ives’s The Unanswered Question in its approach to the opening, intentional or not). One instrument lead as interruption to the consonance, slowly arriving at a gritty yet pleasing dissonant harmony combining the orchestra and the piano, calmness giving rise slowly to despair in, ironically, a most pleasurable way. Moe’s use of the flexatone to produce specific pitches rather than to glissando freely was notable; although that is possible, it is incredibly difficult to do, and the percussion section executed it effortlessly. “The Necessity of Hope” dichotomized Sweetness, opening not with consonance but rather with spindly pointillism and quick motives appearing and disappearing quickly, creating multiple elisions and, effectively, one grand gesture. Here Moe’s playing shined the most, active and intense but also incredibly cool and collected as his hands floated across the keys. Once in a while, though, the brass overpowered the solo piano; that fact probably has more to do with Jordan Hall than the ensemble’s control. This concerto ended the first half extremely powerfully, taking our collective despair and tugging us back away from it to a form of joy.

Shelley Washington
Richard Cornell

Boston University’s own Richard Cornell contributed Time Rift to open the second half. Cornell reflected on music both as an amorphous object and something that can surprise us when a new idea unexpectedly enters, shifting our own relation to form and time. The first movement “Time Rift,” combined the instruments capable of sustaining chords and pitted them against the piano and marimba, which worked together to bark short staccatos against them. Rose guided the ensemble through the looseness, showing his prowess as interpreter and timekeeper. The two ideas Cornell posed wove throughout the movement and ended with one big explosive outburst. “Listening to the Reach” felt like a heated towel on the neck, while also somehow being incredibly compact. Cornell also exploited the extended color palette of each instrument, including flutes using flutter tongue and the violins producing the so-called “seagull effect” of playing glissandi through multiple harmonics (or if it was not that, it sounded very much like it to great effect). The well-executed brass voicings also contributed to the joy of discovering Time Rift.

Rising star and multiple-style-composer-performer Shelley Washington’s Both rounded out the evening. “Travel” pontificated on Washington’s constant air travel from coast to coast, seemingly making her existence constantly in flux. Washington opened the piece with small cells, Rose indicating with his finger the cell the orchestra had to play. The cellos started by bowing their tailpieces, a quiet effect that did not come across very well until they were joined by the basses. The slow textural build quickly added other members of the ensemble murmuring and chatting with each other, a technique Washington called “Chatter.” Used in this movement, “Chatter” added an extra layer. “Teeny Tiny Little Things” continued from the first movement that broke short arpeggiations with effective use of silence. Out of the four movements, it also inhabited the most post-minimal position in its use of repetition. “Where to Next?” felt out of time in the use of quintuplets before adding in multiple rhythmic layers. It reminded this reviewer of Michael Gordon’s collage of techniques that sounded similar to rock music. “11:30 PM-4:30 AM” crashingly ventured into biting and aggressive harmonies. We initially welcomed the change of pace, though the movement eventually wore out its welcome with constant repetition of roughly the same gesture.

BMOP once again showed its commitment to new and modern music through high-level performance coupled with active commissioning and engagement with audiences and composers alike. Composers need this orchestra and this conductor. None could want for a better advocate.

Ian Wiese is Associate Professor of Ear Training at Berklee College of Music and a doctoral candidate in Music Composition at New England Conservatory. He studied under the late John Heiss and Michael Gandolfi.

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