By Jonathan Blumhofer
Richard Pittman led the core players of BMV in a confident, evocative reading of the music.
Boston Musica Viva’s (BMV) annual Family Concert this past Sunday followed what is, by now, a familiar format: music new and old, with the former consisting of a pair of premieres while the latter was a revival of a past commission.
That old friend, as it were, was Hale Smith’s Ayobami.
Written for BMV in 2000, Ayobami adapts a West African folk tale about a tribal chief who disappears while on a hunt. For some time, village life goes on as usual, until his eponymous daughter begins to ask what could have become of him. The chief’s three sons initiate a search, come upon their father’s remains, and, between the trio of them, manage to bring him back to life. When asked which of the sons should be most honored for bringing him back, though, the chief instead names his daughter – because she remembered that he was missing in the first place. The work’s ultimate point is that nothing is truly dead unless it’s forgotten.
Smith’s score itself features an agreeable blend of Western and African elements. There are many hints of jazz in its pages (particularly its harmonic sonorities – Smith’s career straddled the worlds of jazz and classical music), as well Technicolor arrays of percussion colors. Indeed, Ayobami calls for a percussion ensemble of eight players (in addition to narrator, chorus, and instrumental sextet) and, while Smith’s writing for the group is involved, it’s also discreet.
In Sunday’s performance, the Berklee Percussion Ensemble executed that part of the score with pulsing vigor. They were joined by the Boston City Singers Cantare and Boston City Singers Harmony, who, together, gave a dulcet-voiced account of Ayobami’s choral part. TV news anchor Steve Aveson was the charismatic narrator.
Richard Pittman led the core players of BMV in a confident, evocative reading of the music. Ann Bobo and William Kirkley made fine work of, respectively, Smith’s striking piccolo and bass clarinet writing early in the piece. The swirling, tendril-like woodwind phrases that follow the brothers into the forest as they search for their father were likewise dynamically etched.
Balancing out Ayobami was The Druddigon, a new ballet by Patrick Greene to a libretto by author M. T. Anderson. An allegory about fear (and, perhaps, the dark powers of the imagination), it follows the breakdown of civility and surge of paranoia in an unnamed town after a resident reports having sighted a mythical beast.
Greene’s score is thoroughly attractive and engaging. Parts of it (like the beginning of Act 1) sound sweetly naïve; others (like the Act 2 dream sequence) are harder-edged and menacing. He moves in and between both kinds of music with ease and fluency, thanks in part to a recurring heartbeat-like motive that is transformed in ways subtle and overt across The Druddigon’s half-hour duration.
Sunday’s premiere again featured Aveson in a speaking role, this time getting to do a bit of play-acting as a Kent Brockman-esque reporter tracking developments in the unfolding Druddigon story. Additionally, members of the Northeast Youth Ballet turned in a distinctly vibrant account of its director, Denise Cecere’s, choreography.
Pittman led a focused, lively account of Greene’s score, his players drawing out its warm lyricism while also imbuing its handful of extended techniques (foot stomps, breath tones) with spirit. Like BMV’s last several commissions, The Druddigon’s a fine addition to the repertoire, one that warrants repeated performances and listening.
Leading off the afternoon was the concert’s other premiere, Bernard Hoffer’s short fanfare, A Celebration. One of a series of pieces marking BMV’s 50th-anniversary season this year, it proved an athletic, good-natured romp, beginning with a kind of Mozartian gesture that alternated with chorale figures and busy contrapuntal episodes.
Percussionist Robert Schulz was kept particularly busy in those last sections, discharging them with iridescent spunk. He was matched in strength and articulation by the rest of the group – Bobo, Kirkley, violinist Gabriella Diaz, cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws, and pianist Aaron Likness – whose reading of the piece swelled with panache.
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.