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Monday, November 17, 2008

Concert Review: BMV and BMOP

Friday evening November 14th was a busy one in Boston. The streets were filled with people coming and going to events of one kind or another. The Boston Celtics were playing the Denver Nuggets at the TD Bank North Garden (which explained the green shirts on the T), the Smashing Pumpkins rocked at the Citi Wang Theatre, and the modern dance company Phildanco appeared at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art).

It also appeared that every freelance musician within a 150 miles of Boston was hard at work with engagements either at Jordan Hall playing in BMOP (The Boston Modern Orchestra Project), or down the street with BMV (Boston Musica Viva) at the Tsai Performance Center. As it turned out, both BMOP and BMV had scheduled their concerts for the same evening, and both of those events included several world premieres by Boston-area composers that I wanted to hear.

The problem before me was “how can I defy the laws of physics by being in two places at once?” And, to make things worse, I had just contracted a severe case of acute viral nasopharyngitis (aka the common cold) and I felt as sick as a dog.

Undeterred, I popped some vitamin C and searched for a way to warp the time-space continuum. By contacting one of the composers – Erza Sims – I arranged to tag along with him to the dress rehearsal of his new work Landscapes with Boston Musica Viva which was scheduled for Friday morning.

I drove to his house in Cambridge where we’d planned leave my car on the street and hop on the Green Line to the Tsai Center. But at 9:30 there were no commuter trams to be seen at Lechmere, and we heard mention of major problems on the “T” (it later turned out to be a wreck near Boylston station). Rushing for time, we hopped into my car and raced down to that area of town, where I dropped Ezra off in front of the building just in time for his 10 AM rehearsal. I drove around looking for parking, and joined him not that much later at the rehearsal too.

PART I: Boston Musica Viva (BMV)

It was interesting to see Sims at work with BMV’s music director Richard Pittman and the wonderful musicians in the ensemble. As with any new piece there were lots of questions about interpretation, and Sims was quite articulate and decisive in expressing his musical intentions. He offered constructive ideas about how the players might achieve improved results in challenging passages, and made suggestions in particular about articulation, phrasing, and balance. For example, the overall dynamics in the work had to be re-adjusted for the Tsai Performance Center, and the placement of a crescendo at end of the work was tweaked to yield the appropriate level of sound at the climax.

Landscapes (2008) is the most recent work from a long legacy of pieces that BMV has commissioned from Ezra Sims over the decades. BMV is celebrating its 40th anniversary season, and Sims (who is in his 80th year) has been a part of this new music ensembles’ repertory for the majority of those decades. I do not believe that I have ever missed a premiere of a new Sims composition by the BMV, so I did not want to miss his most recent piece.

Landscapes is scored for Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Viola, and Violoncello, and is comprised of a set of five linked movements which alternate in tempo, mood, and intention. These movements develop from - and elaborate on – ideas that were germinated in a previous song cycle titled im Mirabell. The songs are based on settings of German Expressionist poetry from Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Trakl (im Mirabell was premiered by NotaRiotous).

The musical elements from im Mirabell reappear in Landscapes transformed and skillfully reworked into a composition that is purely instrumental and new. I think of Landscapes as a “Songs without Words” in the tradition of Mendelssohn, but of course with the unmistakable stamp that Sims brings to all of his music – a sense of purpose, importance, and drama.

Over the years Sims has developed a personalized musical language based on a coherent system of microtonal tunings and scales. To perform his music, musicians need to be comfortable negotiating divisions of the octave that are smaller than the semitone. Intervals 1/4, 1/6, or 1/12 the size of a traditional semitone are an integral part of his system and unique sound. From this core intervallic foundation he builds pieces using a system of scales and harmonies that, in the end, sound quite traditional to the ear. For many, the net result is that his music sounds remarkably “in tune.”

Aside from a few extra musical symbols that are combined with standard ones, his musical notation is completely traditional. Even though for the most seasoned of musicians there probably still is a learning curve, his microtonal music has proven to be quite playable. In fact, a second generation of musicians (and several like-minded composers) have grown up with this system and are now quite comfortable with it. From what I observed in the rehearsal, there were very few questions or concerns relating to pitch. The majority of the rehearsal time was dedicated to the age old mechanics of musical expression – phrasing, dynamics, and articulation. Playing in microtones is no longer an obscure talent or technical obstacle. It’s an accepted standard.

I was fortunate to hear Landscapes played through a few times at the rehearsal. Although it was only a preview of the official world premiere performance that would occur tonight, at least I was able to hear Ezra’s new work. Hopefully funds will be secured to take Landscapes into the recording studio by the Boston Musica Viva for a CD recording.

Performing with BMV were some of my favorite Boston-area musicians, including two members of the QX String Quartet: violist Peter Sulski and cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws. Also playing in the Sims were Ann K. Bobo on flute, William Kirkley on clarinet, and Bayla Keyes on violin. All are versatile and dedicated musicians who take their work very seriously. Without musicians like them, composers would most likely shrivel up and die.

(I would hear the other half of the QX String Quartet in a few hours, as violinists Krista Buckland Reisner and Rohan Gregory would appear in Jordan Hall with BMOP. As I said, every freelance musician was busy Friday night).


Part II: Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP)

BMOP is a remarkable organization. It “is considered to be the premier orchestra in the United States dedicated exclusively to commissioning, performing, and recording music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” Founded by Artistic Director Gil Rose, it has been in operation since 1996 and based at the New England Conservatory of Music. A glance at the roster of musicians who perform in the orchestra reads like a “who’s who” of contemporary music performance. The list of prestigious soloists is even more impressive. Given the challenges and fiscal pressures that all symphony orchestras in America are presently consumed with, it amazes me that BMOP has been able to survive. I pray for their continued existence and applaud their good work. I’ve heard that BMOP receives approximately 700 to 800 scores in the mail from composers and publishers every month, so it is clear that they are performing an important service to the new music community.

Friday evening BMOP performed five works – two of which were world premieres.

First on the program was Chamber Concerto VI: Mr. Jefferson (2008) by Elliott Schwartz (b. 1936).

Before the work was played Mr. Schwartz took the mike and delivered some verbal program notes about his composition. The piece took form while Schwartz was conducting research at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. He learned that Thomas Jefferson, in addition to all of his other talents, was an accomplished violinist and well-rounded amateur musician. It was said that Jefferson would practice for three hours per day. His personal library included a collection of 18th century scores, including violin concerti by Vivaldi, Corelli, Handel, and Haydn. Jefferson, interested in everything and a vivid by-product of the Age of Enlightenment, could play many of these works himself. One of his fine violins was an Amati that is still in the possession of the Library of Congress.

Schwartz took all of this historical and biographical information about Jefferson, and incorporated it into a very Ivesian sounding work. Chamber Concerto VI is full of enigmatic codes that thematically reference Jefferson with other people (similar to how Alban Berg’s embedded a love song within his Lyric Suite). While Schwartz’s overall musical language is strictly modern, his piece frequently lapses into the arpeggios of violin riffs lifted from 18th century concerti, and fleeting scalar figures from the keyboard Inventions of J.S. Bach. Not only that, but the music is peppered with allusions or direct quotes from 20th century European composers that post-date Jefferson’s America - such as Gustav Holst. At one point the soloist (Charles Dimmick) could be heard bowing the opening theme from Berg’s famous Violin Concerto – as if he were channeling modern music from the future through the eyes and ears of President Jefferson himself. (Who says music can’t transport you).

Chamber Concerto VI is a piece filled with a high density of ideas, and quite interesting from the wealth of it. But for all of the internal associations found within, the sonic result is rather traditional and unpretentious. The five movements - played continuously - are denoted by the changing timbres of the keyboard player - who alternates between piano, harpsichord, and celesta to contrast sections of the work.


Next on the program was Talus, Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (2007) by Ken Ueno. Wendy Richman was the viola soloist. Ueno (b. 1970) is a very eclectic composer with an interesting background (his education includes West Point, Berklee, and a PhD from Harvard). Talus is the third concerto, and the forth work of his overall to be performed by BMOP.

Talus is written specifically by Ueno for his friend Wendy Richman who is an extraordinarily talented violist. The genesis of Talus was born from an unfortunate accident that Ms. Richman incurred when she broke her ankle during a stage performance at a new music event in Western MA. When Ueno saw the X-ray of her broken talus, biba, and fibula bones, he said “it immediately suggested harmonic possibilities to me.” According to Ueno “some of the harmonies in this piece are, in fact, generated from analysis of the x-ray.” He conducted a spectral analysis of the fracture, and reproduced it using instrumental string sounds.

Talus begins in an unexpected way (consumer warning: if you don’t want me to spill the beans about the beginning, please skip past this paragraph). Talus starts boldly after the musicians are seated and the audience is calm, relaxed and ready for the opening music when the viola soloist lets out a bloodcurdling scream at the top of her lungs. It’s rather unpleasant. (Robert Ceely did something similar at the beginning of his opera Automobile Graveyard when the conductor suddenly pulls out a revolver and fires a deafening shot into the air). Ueno’s scream may be a metaphor, an allusion to the iconic painting by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch commenting on our modern psyche, or perhaps a more literal reference to the penultimate murder scene in Alban Berg’s opera Lulu.

But, given a beginning like that I immediately knew that I had heard this piece before. Last spring Talus was performed by Richman in its electronics version at all-microtone concert put on by the new music ensemble NotaRiotuous sponsored by the Boston Microtonal Society. It began in the same way, except that the scream was generously amplified.

From what I could hear, the viola solo part of the orchestral version of Talus as performed by BMOP is exactly the same as the version with electronics. It progresses slowly with non-traditional string sounds including plenty of scratching, sul ponticello, and harmonics. There is perhaps more white noise than discernible pitch, at least in the solo part. Only very occasionally does the listener hear an emergence of perceptible lines - and then for only the span of a few notes (which tend to be long and drawn out).

It seems as if the viola part in Ueno’s Talus stands as a constant, where the music can be accompanied diversely and framed in different contexts: either with electronically processed sounds or with string orchestra. This form of expansion and variation on a base piece is nothing new. Luciano Berio accomplished this quite successfully his Sequenza VI for Viola (1967). Berio followed his solo work with a version for viola and nine instruments titled Chemins II (1967), which was then followed by an even more robust version for full orchestra: Chemins III (1968). Finally the pieces spawned into parallel versions (e.g. Chemins IIb which replaces the viola with a bass clarinet). In fact the reworking of works by composers into new molds is nothing new. For example J.S. Bach “transcribed” violin concerti into keyboard concerti.

The string orchestra accompaniment in Talus is somewhat reminiscent of the classic work Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima composed in 1960 by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Ueno, like Penderecki, treats the string orchestra as a large sound-generator capable of multiple arcs of glissandi and homogeneous walls of sound configured in clusters.

To my ear, Ueno’s music draws heavily upon the experimental works of the 1960’s and is almost religious in its adherence to the avant garde aesthetics of that period. Perhaps it is because I lived through an era when these works were new that I do not share the same nostalgia. Penderecki moved on in the mid-1970’s to write pieces leaning more towards a conservative romanticism, even penning works in G minor. So this begs the question, is the general tendency toward conservatism in music a symptom of individual composers mellowing (or regressing) with age, or a broader aesthetic movement? Either way, Ueno appears steadfast in his convictions, and while that territory was explored by others in the 1960’s there apparently is a new generation that is discovering “classic” avant garde music for the first time.


In the upside-down world of 21st century music, old is new and new is old.

The next work on the BMOP program was Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra by Robert Erickson (1917-1997). The work, dating from 1954 was beautifully played by cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, who served out long and elegant cantabile lines in the opening recitative as if they were exquisite appetizers at the onset of a fine gourmet meal. Erickson’s work stems from a twelve-tone Viennese lineage, but one can hear shared stylistic similarities with the music of his notable contemporaries: Ben Weber and George Perle. The single-movement Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra, which lasts 15 minutes, was premiered by the Hamburg Radio Symphony led by Ernst Krenek. To my ears, Erickson’s piece sounded new and refreshing. Yet, he must have yearned for something new, since by the end of the 1950’s he was deeply involved with much more experimental models.


After intermission BMOP filled the stage in anticipation of Martin Boykan’s new Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Boykan (b. 1931) had completed the work in 2003, but BMOP had to coordinate with NY-based violinist Curtis Macomber on a mutually-agreeable performance schedule. In his program notes Boykan writes:

I tend to think of my violin concerto in terms of a musical narrative that extends across three movements, from the private, meditative world of the opening to the public, celebratory finale. This narrative unfolds as a dialogue between the individual (represented by the solo) and the crowd.

The violin begins the concerto with a fluid phrase that becomes a germinal idea of the piece. This idea can be found in various forms in all of three of the connected movements. I was struck by the elegance of the solo violin writing, and how it builds on solo and chamber works the composer has written over his lifetime. (I wrote a chapter of my yet-to-be-completed doctoral dissertation on a solo violin work by Boykan, and found some interesting similarities. The interval of an ascending major second is important in the work I studied, and also seems to play a role in the theme of this concerto too).

As someone who is very familiar with Boykan’s chamber music, I was very interested to hear how he would approach the orchestra. While there are many personal characteristics that we have come to associate with Boykan’s highly refined language in the chamber music arena (e.g. a laser-sharp clarity of harmony and a fondness for trills), orchestral writing is a different animal altogether. Although attention for our ear was dominated by the soloist, it was indeed a great pleasure to hear Boykan’s musical intelligence projected onto the larger sound palette provided by an orchestra. The richness of his romantic expression is particularly evident in the second movement, where Berg-like chords pile up in a thickly-scored chorale of harmonic succession. It all comes undone when a percussion battery is gradually introduced, which leads into the fast, energetic, and quickly changing music of the finale.

Curtis Macomber, who is on the faculty of the Juilliard School and Manhattan School of Music in New York, was enthusiastically praised by the Boston audience, the composer, conductor Gil Rose, and by members of BMOP. He is a great champion of contemporary music, and the best advocate a composer can have. Let’s hope that the success generated by Boykan’s Violin Concerto will stimulate additional performances of this work and inspire additional orchestral commissions from him as well.


The final work on the BMOP program was the rarely performed Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (1933) by Arnold Schoenberg. This work featured four amazing and gifted soloists drawn from within BMOP, including violinists Krista Buckland Reisner, Gabriela Diaz, violist Joan Ellersick, and cellist Rafael Popper-Keiszer.

The Concerto, written in the tragic summer of 1933 when the Nazi’s were coming to power, is completely atypical of his music. It does not fall anywhere within the trajectory of his life-time stylistic evolution. While Schoenberg had written plenty of tonal music over his career, the Concerto is unusual in the fact that it comes across as happy light-classical schlock. It’s hard to get past the Germanic kitsch in this music, and even admit that a great master like Schoenberg could compose such a beast. The fact that the composer did not assign an opus number indicated that he wanted this music to be regarded apart from his more serious works.

The surrealistic and bizarre world of the Concerto draws upon Handel’s Concerto Grosso in B-flat number 6 as a model, and yet Schoenberg feels the necessity to “improve” on Handel’s work by enriching it with new material and editing out what he grows bored with. It’s a transcription gone wild – the fun, games, and lunacy of a genius.

My reading of the piece is that Schoenberg needed a distraction from his intensely serious work in music composition and deep thought. He chose to divert his mind from the terror around him and – at least for the summer - escape into a self-created artificial world of musical experimentation and temporary comfort. One gets the sense that there is great craft in the Concerto, but it is completely detached from the raw emotion we normally associate with Schoenberg, almost as if we stumbled upon him in private recreation: doodling, painting, completing crossword puzzles, or mechanically executing exercises in species counterpoint.

The writing for the solo string quartet members is hefty and non-trivial. It’s clearly a very difficult piece to play, and the music was intensely rendered by the BMOP soloists – particularly Krista Buckland Reisner who has a pizzicato so penetrating that it could be used as a lethal weapon. The quartet writing in the Concerto represents a combined unit of group identity, and the musicians almost always communicate in a singular “group speak” – quite unlike the rich inter-soloist dialogue that one can hear in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto (for Violin, Cello, and Piano in C major, Op. 56).

The BMOP concert ended quite late, and the effects of a day-long feast of contemporary music was beginning to wear me down – and I don’t usually tire easily. I hopped on the Green Line and headed for the relative quiet of home.

November 14, 2008
Boston Musica Viva
Tsai Performance Center
Boston, MA

November 14, 2008
Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Jordan Hall
Boston, MA