Concert Review: BMOP Presents “A Fine Centennial” at Jordan Hall

While 1962’s Symphony owes a clear debt to Stravinsky and Britten (especially its last movement), it sounds like nobody but Irving Fine. This is a score that orchestras ought to be lining up to play.

BMOP the evening of "The Fine" Photo: Kathy Wittman

Boston Modern Orchestra Project on the evening of “A Fine Centennial.” Photo: Kathy Wittman.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Few generations of composers have been as unjustly neglected as the United States’ mid-20th-century symphonists: William Schuman, Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, Roger Sessions, David Diamond – the list goes on. Overshadowed by the reputation of their contemporaries in the avant-garde and passed over in favor of more familiar names (and, oftentimes, more lightweight music) on orchestral programs, these composers, collectively, left a huge body of music that’s bracing, deeply expressive, and stylistically distinctive.

All three of those qualities were on full display in the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s (BMOP) season finale at Jordan Hall on Friday night. Labeled A Fine Centennial, BMOP and artistic director Gil Rose offered a program that showcased the music of three sadly undervalued figures with strong local connections: Irving Fine, whose hundredth birthday is being commemorated this November, and two of his close colleagues, Arthur Berger and Harold Shapero. Together, the three formed the core of what’s often referred to as the Boston School, writing music influenced by Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and their shared teacher, Nadia Boulanger.

In the 1950s, Fine, Berger, and Shapero also comprised the original Department of Music at Brandeis University, then as now one of the finest in the country. Indeed, the Brandeis connection was strongly evident on Friday: not only was the audience peppered with Brandeis faculty and alumni, but Eric Chasalow (the Irving G. Fine Professor of Music at Brandeis) delivered welcoming remarks and read a letter from Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence. Additionally, Fine’s daughter, Claudia, addressed the audience, giving this concert the special sense of being a real family affair, even if (like me) you didn’t have a strong Brandeis connection.

Of course, if you did, you probably felt even more at home.

Blue Towers, which opened the evening, is Fine’s arrangement of the Brandeis fight song that he wrote in 1959. It’s appropriately jaunty and tuneful and wouldn’t be out of place on a pops concert (Arthur Fiedler led the premiere with the Boston Pops in 1960). Rose drew lithe, spirited playing from BMOP that was highlighted by Terry Everson leading the way on the refrain.

Also filled with high spirits and not a little charm is Fine’s Diversions. A set of four short piano pieces orchestrated between 1959 and ’60, they neatly demonstrate what a lady in the know, sitting behind me, described to her friends as “Irving’s light touch.”

Light and witty they certainly are. The opening movement, “Little Toccata,” brims with sparkling energy, passing a little, slithery tune around the orchestra. “Flamingo Polka,” Diversions’ second movement, features some deliriously off-balance musical gestures – think of it as a lighter, slightly more melodious companion to Stravinsky’s Circus Polka. A more serious tone characterizes the lyrical third movement, “Koko’s Lullaby,” written in honor of the Fine family’s poodle. But the sobriety of the lullaby is cast away in the finale, “The Red Queen’s Gavotte,” a study in raucous energy and refined humor.

BMOP’s reading of the piece was sprightly and filled with zest. There were a few moments when the small size of Jordan Hall didn’t allow the orchestral sound to really blossom and the brass and low strings swamped the rest of the ensemble, but overall the performance was highly characteristic. Diversions is a work that deserves a wide audience: it’s accessible in the best sense of the word – easy on (and appealing to) the ears, but crafted with the technical assurance of a master.

Equally appealing, but for very different reasons, is Fine’s 1962 Symphony. His last major score (Fine died just days after conducting the piece with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood that summer), it’s stylistically and harmonically worlds removed from Blue Tower and Diversions. Hard, driving, austere, pungently chromatic (in it, Fine – like Copland and Stravinsky around the same time – adapted the Serial method to fit his own purposes), Fine’s Symphony still possesses a distinctive, lyrical voice that here serves compelling dramatic purposes.

The piece is cast in three movements, the first introductory. In it, groups of instruments enter like characters in a play, passing around material before building to a big climax; a short episode led by the English horn wraps things up mysteriously. Next is a wild, intense “Capriccio” that recalls the “urban jungle” music of Ives and Bartók. The third movement finale then recounts music previously heard but now transformed in various ways and builds to an emphatic conclusion.

It’s a powerful piece, undeniably one of the great 20th-century American symphonies and BMOP’s performance was imbued with a sense of occasion. Fine’s orchestrations are nothing if not colorful and there was some phenomenal brass and percussion playing throughout the reading: the clangorous chords at the end of the second movement were particularly hair-raising. Some of the softer episodes – string harmonics and harp in the first movement, for instance – likewise stood out.

While the Symphony owes a clear debt to Stravinsky and Britten (especially its last movement), it sounds like nobody but Fine. This is a score that orchestras ought to be lining up to play and one hopes that Andris Nelsons and the band across Huntington Ave., for one, will see fit to resurrect their old commission sooner rather than later.

Fine’s Symphony fit well on the second half of Friday’s program with Arthur Berger’s Prelude, Aria, and Waltz for strings. This is a relatively early Berger piece (written in 1945, when he was in his early 30s) that in places suggests some of the complexities in which his later music would indulge – the weird, crunching end of the Waltz being one of those moments. BMOP’s slightly reduced string section delivered a confident, energized reading of its three succinct movements.

The concise nature of the Fine and Berger works contrasted markedly with Harold Shapero’s Serenade in D for String Orchestra. Shapero’s most prolific decade was the 1940s, when he was in his twenties, and much of the music he wrote then is filled with youthful exuberance. And excess. Right or wrong, I’ve always felt that the adage “less is more” would have been a useful one for Shapero to have embraced and it was hard to escape that sense during BMOP’s thirty-five-minute performance of this Serenade.

Simply put, there’s too much material in the piece to justify its length. There are five movements, of which the first two are the most successful. By the end of the third – which makes several feints too many at ending – there’s the sense that the Serenade would be much more satisfying if it were half as long. From a technical perspective, Shapero’s writing is as facile and assured as Berger’s or Fine’s. It’s also extremely virtuosic: some sour intonation and occasionally ragged ensemble playing marred Friday’s performance.

Even so, there were memorable moments. The swooning opening theme in the first movement oozed easy gentility. The sprightly second movement bounced along with unpredictable humor. Muted strings in the fourth movement, “Intermezzo,” brought a striking shift in timbre, and the finale chugged along agreeably. The central Larghetto had, despite its discursive nature, moments of charged drama, especially in its explosive central section.

Only a handful of recordings have been made of the pieces on Friday’s program, so BMOP’s upcoming account of these works (especially the Fine scores) will be something to look forward to. Until then, the Irving Fine Society has a number of centennial events planned this year across the Northeast, in Washington, D.C., and Seattle. Catch them if and when you can: Fine’s music is well worth your time, attention, and appreciation.

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.

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