Concert Review: Boston Musica Viva’s Annual Family Concert

Musically, everything clicked in Boston Musica Viva’s annual Family Concert.

Richard Pittman conducing the New England Philharmonic.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

It’s a truth for composers that the hardest performance to get (after the first one, that is) is the second. So hats off to Boston Musica Viva (BMV) for not just commissioning lots of new music but also for re-programming many of those pieces for subsequent hearings. The ensemble returned to action at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center on Sunday afternoon with their annual Family Concert and the first piece they played was a revival.

The work in question was Bruce Adolphe’s The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, a 2007 adaptation of the book by Paul Goble that tells the story of a Native American girl whose fascination with the wild horses that live near her village leads her to run off and live with them; when she returns to settle with the animals permanently, she eventually turns into one herself.

Adolphe’s score brims with color and energy. Some of his writing (particularly for flute) evokes actual Native American music, though those influences are neatly subsumed into his own musical language.”

Sunday’s performance, which featured Joyce Kulhawik as the narrator and members of the Boston City Singers’ Cantare, was executed with plenty of vigor mystery. Flautist Anne Bobo’s solos were beguiling, cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws made athletic work of his part’s depiction of the story’s mythical stallion, and percussionist Bob Schulz seemed to have a blast with Adolphe’s involved scoring.

The young Cantare ensemble was limited to just two short refrains in the piece, but they sang both crisply, with bright tone and true pitch. They made similarly fine work of Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory’s Beneath the African Sky, a song inspired by the separation and unlikely reunification of two sisters with their parents after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

After intermission came the afternoon’s world premiere, a BMV Family Concert tradition. This year’s was Barbara White’s ballet The Wrong Child – Or, The Cauldron of Unintended Consequences.

Composed for BMV and Northeast Youth Ballet, it’s based on a Welsh myth that tells of a goddess forcing a young girl to stir a potion meant to embolden her timid, young son. When the girl accidentally tastes the brew (she’s the “wrong child” of the title), the deity is enraged and the two transform into various creatures and items as the one pursues the other through the skies and ocean, and across the land. In the midst of this, the son – without the aid of the elixir – is himself transformed. In the end, the goddess realizes that the boy had the power to overcome his obstacles within himself all along and, more, that there’s room for a diversity of gifts in every creature to flourish and enrich the world.

White’s music for this scenario is marvelously inventive. Like Adolphe in The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses (and Bernie Hoffer in his Paul Revere’s Ride a couple years ago), she doesn’t shy away from complex harmonic and technical gestures. Quite the opposite, in fact: there are lots of extended techniques on display, from bass clarinet multiphonics to natural harmonic glissandos for violin and cello, and a wonderfully Cowell-esque episode for piano played under the lid, among other things. White’s writing for percussion is likewise vivid, with some Chinese opera gongs adding a special allure to the proceedings.

The BVM ensemble – violinist Gabriella Diaz, clarinetist William Kirkley, and pianist Geoffrey Burleson in addition to the players mentioned above – dove in and gave a formidable premiere of the piece. Burleson and Kirkley, in particular, drew a rich palette of colors from their respective parts, especially in White’s writing of extended techniques, and BMV music director Richard Pittman not only kept everything moving tightly but shaped it smartly, too: the final section (“I have been in many things”) made for a sumptuously touching epilogue.

On stage (the instrumentalists were seated on the hall’s floor), the Northeast Youth Ballet acquitted themselves excellently. Denise Cecere’s choreography drew out the story’s natural elements – flowing water, falling rain, etc. – with particular eloquence and the dancers responded in kind, with a strong sense of the musical rhythm and impressive synchronicity.

As in the Adolphe, narrator Kulhawik delivered The Wrong Child’s text with a strong sense of pacing and a nice understanding of the narrative’s drama. In both pieces she was a bit over-mic-ed, the sound system picking up her page turns with a bit more clarity than necessary.

Still, that was about the afternoon’s only flaw and easy enough to ignore. Musically, everything clicked, and the White left a strong impression. Can’t wait to hear it again – which, with BMV, you can be sure you’ll get to sooner or later.

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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