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Things that go BMOP in the night

By Adam Hughes

Section: Features

January 29, 2010

If you attended a performance of the Boston Symphony Orchestra last fall, chances are pretty good that you heard one or more of Beethoven’s symphonies. The BSO, widely recognized as one of the world’s most elite orchestras, presented a complete set of these vaunted works throughout October and November and has several additional performances scattered throughout their concert season. My hometown orchestra, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, dedicated this, their 116th season, to the theme “Beethoven and Beyond.” Their concerts are centered around a complete series of the nine symphonies.

No one can rationally deny the importance of the Beethoven symphonies to the development of music, and their status as the most performed selections from the art music repertoire is well deserved from any aesthetic or historical standpoint you wish to take. However, when you consider that two separate ensembles known for embracing contemporary compositions are still wedded to such a tired theme and you realize how endemic this stagnation is among orchestras, you begin to realize that there is a very real problem in the world of music. Directors of the greatest orchestras in the world have long since decided that the price of aggressively pursuing contemporary works is far too great to risk alienating casual supporters, and modern art music is left suffocating for want of attention as a result.

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project stands defiantly in the face of this current. Founded in 1996 with the intent of performing only works from 1900 and beyond, the BMOP has quickly become one of the most highly regarded ensembles of its type. It boasts of having produced more than 70 world premieres, injecting lifeblood into an otherwise dangerously tired medium. I was very excited to be invited by my aunt, a member of BMOP’s Board of Trustees, along with several friends, to attend their January 22nd performance, and, having very limited experience with modern art music, I was expecting a novel, possibly even revelatory, experience.

The concert’s theme was “Band in Boston,” and, indeed, the performing group was a concert band rather than a full orchestra. They opened with one of the more famous recent works for wind ensemble, Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphonies of Wind Instruments” from 1920. Stravinsky, far and away the best known composer on the program, intended the title to refer not to the classical form of the symphony but instead to the word’s more general definition as a gathering of sounds. Perhaps it wasn’t the best piece to use as a concert opener, as the music is very thick and not particularly rousing. On the other hand, it serves as great introduction to the possibilities of the wind ensemble, giving featured spots to every woodwind instrument. Stravinsky was famous for imagining new sonic frontiers for wind instruments (note the infamous bassoon solo that opens “Le Sacre du Printemps”), and “Symphonies of Wind Instruments” weaves together passages through rapidly shifting tempos in a snake-like fashion I had never heard before. The band did a great job maintaining a coherent flow through this highly complex piece.

The second piece, “Privacy,” was a one movement piano concerto by Harold Meltzer that premiered in 2008. Meltzer himself was at the performance to give a pre-concert talk that I unfortunately missed. Perhaps hearing it would have helped me to make sense of the piece; as it is, it sounded like an utter mess to me. The “soloist” barely soloed at all; rather, she just banged out repetitive series of chords that served as nothing more than musical wallpaper for the transient musical phrases of the band, which never developed into anything cohesive. Meltzer’s program notes describe the piece as “essentially an anti-concerto,” and he is correct insofar as “Privacy” contained none of the elements that make the concerto form so appealing.

The first half of the concert ended with “The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart,” a 1953 work by Percy Grainger. The piece is structured around the composer’s love of European folk music, a characteristic that becomes uncomfortable when it is seen in its proper light as an element of Grainger’s belief in the racial supremacy of European heritage. The piece is good but undistinguished; the themes betray competence but little inspiration.

Overall, I was feeling a little disappointed as the intermission began. While the ensemble’s technical ability was obvious, the music was simply not affecting me as much as I had hoped. With an intimidating 20 minute piece staring me in the face as the concert resumed, I began to wonder if this modernist approach to music was right for me, or if it was of significant artistic worth at all.

However, my worries soon proved to be completely unfounded.

Wayne Peterson’s extensive resume includes a Pulitzer Prize and a teaching stint at Brandeis University, and he continues to compose new music despite being over 80 years old. “And the Winds Shall Blow” consists of a single, lengthy movement written for the unusual combination of wind ensemble and saxophone quartet.

I can also safely say that it is one of the most monumentally awe-inspiring works I’ve ever seen performed live. Arnold Schoenberg’s music is the clearest inspiration for his work, and like Schoenberg, Peterson can turn dissonance and atonality into majestic beauty and power, staying relentlessly modern while remaining universally appealing.

The visiting PRISM Quartet managed to navigate the complex interplay among themselves and against the band while playing with intense emotion over the entire range of their instruments. The piece ended with a majestic crescendo, a false ending that was followed by a searingly aggressive saxophone cadenza leading to an even grander climax, and I was finally able to resume breathing.

But not for long. Joseph Schwantner’s “Recoil” was every bit as successful as the piece which preceded it. Schwanter’s composition used an expanded percussion section and an amplified piano to create the most rhythmically active work I’ve heard, and the BMOP’s percussionists met the challenge of both grounding and propelling the highly dramatic music. The intensity of the main themes was unexpectedly and effectively countered by a haunting middle section that featured atmospheric humming by the instrumentalists rising out of a minimal percussion background, similar to the finale of the “Neptune” movement from Gustav Holst’s “Planets.” Having premiered just six years ago, “Recoil” proves that there is still creativity and talent to be found in the art music scene, and it is truly a shame that many orchestras are doing so little to seek it out.

Ultimately, while the concert wasn’t perfect, the high points were high enough that I eagerly await the next Boston Modern Orchestra Project event, to be held on March 6 in the beautiful Jordan Hall, less than a mile from where the Crystal Shuttle stops in Boston. The BMOP introduced me not only to the pieces that were performed, but to an entire world of contemporary art music, a world that I am eager to start exploring.

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