Things are going well with Monadnock Music: before Saturday’s concert kicked off, managing director Christopher Sink announced that the festival had cleared its financial debts as it heads into next year’s 50th anniversary season.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
You might not expect it, but cartoon music has cast a long shadow over many 20th- and 21st-century composers. Or so it seems after the offbeat program on Saturday evening that closed Monadnock Music’s 49th season at the Peterborough Town House. Artistic director Gil Rose was on the podium leading a reduced contingent from his Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) in a series of pieces for chamber orchestra by John Adams, Walter Piston, and Gail Kubik.
In his prime, Kubik – who, among other things, won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1952 – was a formidable composer who spent much of his career scoring documentaries, films, and animated features. Gerald McBoing Boing is one of the latter, a 1950 short that tells the story of a boy, Gerald McCloy, who, rather than speaking words, verbalizes percussion sounds. The concert version of the piece, which extends the duration of the film original by five or six minutes, is scored for narrator, small ensemble, and solo percussionist.
On Saturday, Robert Schulz filled the latter role with stylish, impish humor and thunderous chops, dexterously navigating the percussion battery set up on a dais before the stage. Frank Kelley proved a fine choice for the narrator, though the orchestra, at louder volumes, sometimes kept his recitation of Theodore Geisel’s text from being clearly heard.
For the most part, though, Rose and BMOP emphasized the wit and sophistication of Kubik’s highly-motivic writing for the ensemble. This is heady, crafty music that, especially when well played (like it was on Saturday), easily belies the misconceptions that music for film and television is, by definition, trite and forgettable.
There is nothing trite and much heady and crafty about the music of Walter Piston, who’s 1946 Divertimento followed Saturday’s intermission. Its title is a bit of a misnomer: there’s not much terribly diverting about the piece. True, the first movement, with its Coplandesque riffs and diatonic motives is plenty sunny, but the slow second one casts a somber, caliginous shadow that isn’t mitigated by the high energy of the finale: if anything, one hears the fidgety last movement as a recapitulation of the first one, but filtered through the expressive prism of the second.
As such, it’s a powerfully organic piece and it received an intense, focused performance from Rose and a nonet (string and wind quartets, plus double bass) from BMOP. To these ears, the most memorable music is found in that jocund first movement – sharply accented syncopations passed between strings and winds, a quasi-fugal passage for strings alone, and so forth – all of which was played with vital spirit and energy on Saturday.
Framing the evening were two John Adams works for chamber orchestra, the Chamber Symphony (1992) and Son of Chamber Symphony (2007). Hearing them side-by-side was revealing. They’re pieces that are clearly related: both share similar orchestrations; have three movements; and feature plenty of zany, virtuosic episodes. But there’s also plenty of difference between them, as we shall discuss.
The earlier score channels the influence of Arnold Schoenberg’s opus 9 Chamber Symphony (there’s a near quote at the very end of the finale) as well as the Looney Tunes music of Carl Stalling. It’s brash, freewheeling, hyper-athletic, and not a little daunting to listen to, especially when played in a room as acoustically live as the Peterborough Town House. Adams has noted how difficult it is to maintain a good sense of balance in the piece and, throughout Saturday’s performance, I couldn’t help but feel that a clearer delineation of its busy textures would have better captured the music’s madcap qualities. That said, the details that burbled through the genial cacophony on Saturday demonstrated an impressive technical command of this constantly shifting, tricky score that bodes well for BMOP’s forthcoming recording of it.
Rose kept everything brisk and teased out the music’s lyricism when he could, especially in the slower middle movement. Concertmaster Charles Dimmick delivered a heroic performance of the Symphony’s hugely demanding violin part, culminating in a breathtaking charge through the finale’s treacherous cadenza. Similarly, Linda Olsen managed a striking account of the extended writing for synthesizer and percussionist Schulz anchored the ensemble’s reading with rhythmic precision and an array of timbral subtleties.
The boundless, off-the-wall spirit of Chamber Symphony is tempered in Son of Chamber Symphony by a striking sense of nostalgia. In its references to old forms, it’s possibly Adams’ most Classical score (so, too, in its quotations: the first movement kicks off with the first theme from the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony). And, with its abrupt rhetoric and willingness to simply break off once the music’s done speaking its piece, it’s charmingly Ivesian, too.
Saturday’s reading of Son got off to an energetic, but deliberate, start, the ensemble treading Adams’ layered rhythms a bit too cautiously. Once things settled, though, the music started taking flight, led by Terry Everson’s agile trumpet solos. The slow middle movement, which revolves around an absolutely beautiful tune, offered both a marvelous deconstruction of Adams’ inimitable way with musical transitions and some particularly shapely playing from the wind section. And the finale, with its pulsing cross-rhythms and obsessive iterations of thirds, afforded a haunting balance of humor and pathos.
As in the Chamber Symphony performance, there were some problems with balance on Saturday – each of the outer movements sounded too jumble-y from time to time – but nothing that really detracted from the overall musical picture; in this, the Son fared a bit better than its father. Rose again maintained sprightly tempos and a lively command of the musical structure: the upcoming BMOP Adams album (which is slated to include both these chamber symphonies and the marvelous, underrated Common Tones in Simple Time) is shaping up to be one of the highlights of the BMOP/Sound catalogue.
While BMOP is looking and sounding as strong as ever, things are going well with Monadnock Music, too: before Saturday’s concert kicked off, managing director Christopher Sink announced that the festival had cleared its financial debts as it heads into next year’s 50th anniversary season. That a small festival in rural New Hampshire can command the artistic vision and musical quality that Monadnock does is impressive by itself; to know that it’s going forward on secure fiscal ground with strong, creative leadership in place – and on the heels of Saturday’s wily, entertaining concert – is the stuff of inspiration, indeed.
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.