IN: Reviews

BMOP and Brandeis Collaborate

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The conductor

Boston Modern Orchestra Project commanded an 80%-full house, as the players filled the Jordan Hall stage to the brim on Saturday night. The elegant booklet dubbed the concert “Jeremiah,” but it could as well have been titled “Brandeis,” because of the significant Brandeis University connection, which underwrote much of the funding, and the university’s relationship to every composer represented. Artistic Director Gil Rose led a full, bright, loud, sonorous evening of first-rate performances.

Harold Shapero (1920-2013) spent much of his life as a professor of music at Brandeis. A graduate of Harvard (1941), he was a star student of Walter Piston, whose brisk neoclassicism is duly reflected in the lively staccato and quartal harmony of Shapero’s Nine-Minute Overture. There is plenty of wit in this elegant undergraduate essay, and the orchestral sparkle is unmistakable; there is a well-organized sonata-overture form, with well-contrasted themes, mixed meters, melodies in mariachi-style parallel thirds, and even a piano riff seemingly borrowed from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.1. One senses that Leonard Bernstein remembered this piece when he wrote his ever-popular and seriously tonal Overture to Candide 15 years later.

Yu-hui Chang, composer (born Taiwan in 1970), was on hand to explain the motivation for her orchestral tapestry called Hawking Radiation, a BMOP commissioned work. She spoke of black holes at galactic centers, predicted by astrophysical theory a century ago but not considered observable until recent years, and the emission of light from outside the “event horizon” that inspires a universal humanistic hope for life on earth. The work itself, lasting about 25 minutes, was wrought in successive episodes of quietly furious and often charming instrumental complexity, much of it in extra-long sostenuto lines punctuated by short bursts in very high registers. One heard bitonal chordal layers, whole-tone harmony, diminished sevenths and Scriabinesque ninths, interminably hovering single notes, often tossed together with clever antiphony; the composer had mentioned that the astrophysical radiation was searched by eight simultaneously configured radio telescopes, and that the orchestral array mirrored some of this. The work ended on a quiet fadeout, with barely a sine-tone G from a Tibetan bowl remaining from the rear of the stage.

After the intermission came Three Pieces for Orchestra, composed in 1994 by the Bulgarian-American Henri Lazarof (1932-2013), who had studied with Shapero at Brandeis. The first, “Preambolo,” like the similarly-named “Präludium” in Alban Berg’s Drei Orchesterstücke op. 6, sounded seriously motivic, loud, luminous, and short. “Lamentazione,” an actual dirge, featured a steady heavy beat, much-divided strings, and drums; it climaxed with big repeated chords as in Webern’s Funeral March in his Opus 6, but with a quiet unpitched percussion fadeout like Berg’s. “Finale” made much of lively, repetitive counterpoint, with abundant mallet percussion, and another quiet percussion ending. The harmonic idiom in all three movements was chromatic-chordal even to excess, non-developing but with occasional pastures of color.

The oldest work on the program, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah (1939-42), proved to be the hit of the evening. The three well-crafted movements, “Prophecy,” “Profanation,” and “Lamentation,” supposedly reflect the composer’s take on the “crisis of our century, the crisis of faith.” Secular but religious nevertheless, the symphony revels in all the power of youthful maturity. Some serious assimilations from American concert styles of the 1940s work especially well here — the chorale-like wind sonorities, two-part slow counterpoint in string octaves, abundant patterns in scherzando 7/8 meter, pandiatonic harmony much like Copland’s of the same time, and no jazz at all. As with the Shapero overture, one sensed the instructional models of Walter Piston in the background. But Bernstein is fully focused here with expressive eloquence; it came forth with signal strength in the third movement, as the soprano intoned, qinot texts (Kinnots are Hebrew dirges) from the Book of Lamentations, and mourning the first destruction of the Temple (“Khet khata y’rushalayim…” — Jerusalem has grievously sinned, Lam. 1:8).

Kathy Wittman photo

Alice Chung, a mezzo-soprano with a big, brave voice — I would not be surprised to hear her sing Wagner sometime — delivered her part with fine conviction and total clarity. The orchestra supported her in perfect proportion. (I can remember when Vic Firth told our class at Tanglewood that this symphony contained an instance of timpani played not with timp sticks but with maracas, and I later confirmed this in the score; I listened closely but I didn’t hear it.). The success of this work brought the audience to its feet. Rose conducted the entire program with the precise control and vigor that have made his mark with BMOP ever since 1996. 

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston. The writer been a member of the Advisory Board of BMOP from its founding.

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