The BMOP’s opening concert featured the group succeeding at an important part of its mission: to perform unfairly overlooked American music.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) returned to action on Saturday night at Jordan Hall doing what they do best: playing (and giving voice to) neglected and underperformed American music. American Masters, the season’s first program, offered four works that spanned a good part of the last sixty-five years.
The night’s oldest piece was also its most prestigiously-recognized. Gail Kubik took home the 1952 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Symphony Concertante though, as Rose mentioned to the audience, it’s only been played “probably three or four times” in the ensuing sixty-plus years. Judging from Saturday’s performance that’s a remarkable, if not totally surprising, statistic.
Based on music from Kubik’s score to Joseph Lerner’s 1949 film, C-Man, it’s a piece that owes more than a small stylistic debt to Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical style. The outer movements are filled with driving, motoric rhythms and some angular melodic writing (especially the first movement’s opening theme). In the slow middle one, the orchestra is almost entirely silent: only a few accompanimental gestures occur near the end; the rest of the movement is given over to a substantial, probing conversation between the three soloists – a peculiar combination of piano, viola, and trumpet.
That’s the most affecting section of the piece, and it allowed Saturday’s soloists – pianist Vivian Choi, violist Jing Peng, and trumpeter Terry Everson – to engage in a rich back-and-forth with one another. In the other movements, only Everson’s account of the trumpet part really took flight; Choi and Peng were each a bit score- (and earth-) bound. Perhaps that owes more to Kubik than anyone else, though, since the piano part doesn’t really allow the soloist enough opportunities to breathe and the viola writing doesn’t always flatter the instrument.
Still, Saturday was a nice opportunity to hear this neglected piece which, despite its stylistic conservatism and tendency to sometimes run a bit long, is plenty approachable and, in the second movement, deeply expressive. Rose led BMOP in a spirited accompaniment that, a few coordination slip-ups aside, was notable for its rhythmic vitality, good balance, and strong sense of character.
Those same qualities marked the orchestra’s playing in Harold Shapero’s Partita in C, which showcased Choi’s pianism to stronger effect. Written in 1960, the Partita takes the title and general character of the eponymous Baroque genre and updates it for the mid-20th century. The harmonic language is largely tonal, though there are spiky dissonances and Shapero included some 12-tone writing for good measure. Best of all, it’s a score that seems to know how to say what it needs to convey without wasting time – a characteristic I can’t say I’ve found to be true of several other Shapero pieces.
Saturday’s performance snapped nicely in the stately, opening “Sinfonia”; danced with a certain measure of glee in the frolicsome “Pastorale” and acerbic “Scherzo”; sang soulfully in the beautiful “Aria” (Nancy Dimmock and Franziska Huhn were the standout English horn and harp soloists, respectively); and gamboled nimbly in the mysterious – but also goofy – Spanish-tinged “Burlesca.” The Partita even has its forward-looking moments: the driving harmonic shifts in the “Ciaccona” seem to anticipate Philip Glass by a few years.
Choi played it all with panache and color. She lingered over some of the Partita’s tenderer moments but was most impressive maintaining the music’s vigorous pace in the livelier parts. Rose and the orchestra were with her every step of the way, whether that was with solo strings weaving together certain of the movements or the full ensemble pushing ahead with the soloist in the rousing, final “Esercizio.”
While the Kubik and Shapero pieces owed something to mid-century Neo-Classicism, it was striking how Steven Stucky’s Chamber Concerto took on the influence of the next generation of composers, namely Witold Lutoslawski and Olivier Messiaen (particularly in relation to the music’s sonic and motivic ontogenesis).
Stucky wrote the piece in 2009 for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It flows in one continuous movement but can be divided into a number of discreet parts. The first is an atmospheric section that features a series of chromatic wind solos over a bed of sustained string chords that are occasionally punctuated by short, muted brass interjections. This part then flows into a lively scherzando that alternates agile woodwind figures with a stirring, lyrical melody played by violins and viola. Further passages of wind solos, often mellifluous, eventually lead to a section featuring the brass echoing between them a simple motive that takes on increasing importance as the Concerto proceeds. After further scherzando interruptions, a searching, rising brass melody emerges and is taken up by various elements in the ensemble. Again, the bustling scherzando is reprised and this leads, ultimately, to a Rite of Spring-like (or is it Lutoslawski Symphony no. 4-like?) closing blast.
In all, it’s an excellent piece, clearly crafted and cogently developed, scored with a keen ear for sonority and color. Rose led a shapely, sensitive account of it, with solos from principal flute Jessica Lizak, principal oboe Jennifer Slowik, and principal clarinet Michael Norsworthy standing out. Along with the Shapero, I’d love to see the Stucky turn up on a new BMOP/Sound release: they’re both worthy works and finely wrought.
Saturday’s concert opened with Michael Colgrass’s The Schubert Birds, a 1989 homage to Franz Schubert and Charlie Parker that’s essentially a complex set of variations on the former’s Kupelwieser Waltz. While there are striking moments and ideas throughout (the evocations of birds soaring alone and together at the piece’s beginning and end work particularly well), the whole thing, to my ears, simply didn’t cohere. Its expressive aim was unclear and its temperature all over the map.
That said, BMOP’s performance seemed perfectly secure and a number of instrumental solos impressive, including those from principal viola Joan Ellersick, and the nifty duet of trumpeter Everson and vibraphonist Robert Schulz. But when, a day (or more) later, the brightest memory of The Schubert Birds is Colgrass’s hurdy-gurdy-like scoring of the original Schubert waltz near its end, well, that’s not the most promising sign.
No matter. It’s good to have BMOP back in action and an ambitious new season of theirs – culminating in Michael Tippet’s awesome A Child of Our Time in April – underway.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.