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Monday, November 23, 2009

Boston Music Viva: Elixirs

On Friday November 2oth, the Boston Musica Viva led by Richard Pittman did their thing at Tsai Performance Center at Boston University. BMV is in the second inning of their 41st season.

The eclectic concert, branded "Elixirs," featured works by Schwantner, Rakowski, Arrell, Ives, and Hoffer.

As a long-time follower of Boston's oldest running new music ensemble, I'm always impressed with their professionalism. While the musicians have changed over the years, their Music Director has kept an even keel and consistent mantra through the decades.


One of the interesting aspects of BMV is that they adopt a work by a composer, and keep it in their repertory. Once they take it on, it's likely to get recorded and performed regularly.

Such is the case with Joseph Schwantner's 1974 composition Elixir - which opened the concert. Believe it or not, I was in attendance the BMV performance of Elixir in 1974 and heard Pittman conduct the piece at the Longy School of Music. The flute soloist at that time was Fenwick Smith - in the days when he had a long pony tail - but before he left BMV to join the Boston Symphony, and before he retired from the Boston Symphony. In short, it was a long, long time ago!

In some way it is curious that Pittman would resurrect this 35-year old piece. It's not as if Schwantner's Elixir is a bona fide 20th century music classic. It's musical language and techniques sound pretty dated to our 21st-century ears. Before performing Elixir, Pittman ran the audience through an educational show-and-tell demo session highlighting selected passages from the work. It was intended to elucidate elements of the composer's intended structure and compositional ideas. I suppose that all music is "new music" in a sense (even Brahms), but I have to wonder why a very "accessible" work such as Elixir - written 35 years ago - still requires verbal program notes to explain it.

Looking at the average age of the audience, I wondered about how many people in attendance to hear BMV that night had also been at the 1974 concert along with me. It begs the question, is BMP perpetuating a brand of "new music" that is inherently retro? Is BMV becoming the Lawrence Welk equivalent of a new music ensemble by allowing its' long-time followers to re-live their youthful avant garde experiences?

Five Street Songs by Charles Ives in a cute arrangement by Pittman was also on the program. I recall hearing these arrangements at a BMV concert just a few seasons back. It's a crowd-pleaser, whit lots of theatrics and vaudevillian panache. I'm afraid to say that it would be a big hit if performed at the local senior center. Mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal sang beautifully, but given the orchestration and poor acoustics of Tsai Performance Center, it was difficult to hear her. I think her voice should have been amplified. Why not? Pop vocalists do that all the time.

Another aspect of BMVs programming that is quint and familiar is organization's leaning toward gimmicky works. For example the Schwanter utilizes the sound of multiple tuned crystal glasses played by the musicians. There seems to be a preference for pieces which have entertainment value beyond the pure and native abstract construction of the music.

After decades of attending BMV's concerts, I've also noticed a tendency to have the same composers commissioned and performed over and over, and over again. This is not necessarily a bad thing if the composer is of merit, but after 35 or so years I'd like to hear a broader spectrum of talent.

One of the newish works on Friday's program was NARCISSUS/echo (2006) by Chris Arrell. It was a Boston premiere. NARCISSUS/echo is a short piece that provides an interesting perspective on music composition. The work seems to be informed by minimalist concepts of time and motion. The ensemble explores notes that are often fixed in register and pitch, but which evolve methodically from section to section. The instrumentation and tone color change frequently, but the harmony is fairly static and the surface rhythm regular.

I found myself wanting many more notes, thicker textures, harsh dissonance, complex poly-rhythms, clusters, and loud and violent attacks. I paid $30 bucks to hear a new music concert, and gosh darn it, I expect a night of good'ol 20th century anxiety-prone mod-music in exchange for my hard-earned discretionary spend'in money.

Fortunately I got my value for the dollar with a new piece by David Rakowski: Mikronomicon (2009). It was a world premiere, commissioned by BMV, and featured pianist-extraordinaire Geoffrey Burleson. Composed specifically for Burleson, the mcro-concerto is somewhat of a departure for Rakowski. It's a rather mellow work that verges on big band-era jazz. In three movements, it covers a spectrum of gestures and cool licks that allow the soloist stand out like a rockstar.

The first movement was unabashedly funky, and begins with a neat tune in the piano. It reminded me a bit of the driving rhythmic yet sparse theme music for the TV program "Charlie Rose." The theme comes back at the end of the movement - transposed a half step higher and without the piano.

The slow second movement of Mikronomicon was perhaps more characteristic of (in the words of the composer) "angry modern music." It features a duet of dueling melodicas played by the piano soloist and percussionist. An "unyielding" two-note ostinato (F-E flat) is sounded 99 times in succession, but with different orchestrations and harmonic contexts. The composer explained that had dreamt these notes, but later realized that it was a chickadee's bird call. He felt obligated to include it in the piece. The ostinato functions as a middle-voice range pedal point. The composer revels in it, exploring the many possibilities implied by the self-limiting restriction.

Mikronomicon's third and final movement returns back firmly to the funky sound-world of movment one, then morphs into toe-tapping cafe music, and finally ends with a wild extravaganza of a finish that made everyone in the audience grin and clap enthusiastically.

Now a hugely successful composer in his early 50s, Rakowski is comfortable in his position. He keeps finding ways to write new and interesting pieces, even though he has already composed at least five works for this standard collection of instruments (known in the biz as the "Pierrot ensemble"). In a phone interview last Friday with David Weininger of the Boston Globe (11/20/2009), Rakowski said, "I really didn't want to write this piece because I'm tired of the 'Pierrot' ensemble... ...and in order to make it interesting for me I had to come up with something weird."

Weird of not, Mikronomicon is a new and enjoyable piece - but not your average new music fare.

The concert ended with a mandatory encore. Richard Pittman said that they were going to play it "if you like it or not." Fortunately I liked it. The piece was Blues from A Boston Cinderella (200) by Bernard Hoffer. Hoffer made the trip all the way up from NY to hear his tiny piece. It was cool cafe music with bongos and Gershwin-like clarinet glissandi. Well done, but it could have been a tune performed on the old Lawrence Welk family variety TV show.

The BMV concert was pretty well attended, and the crowd included many notable composers (Beth Weimann, Peter Child, John Harbison, Yehudi Weiner). I sat next to composer Shirish Korde whom I've known for 36 years. I noticed in the BMV program booklet that his opera Phoolan Devi: The Bandit Queen will be performed by BMV in April of 2010. Shirish thanked me for reminding him about it, since he still needs to compose the music.

After the concert everyone convened in the lobby for an assortment of elixirs: cookies, hot apple cider, and rich chocolate brownies that were to die for.

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