As the Globe's Jeremy Eichler pointed out in his review of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's season-ending concert — called "Apollo's Fire" — referring to the program note by the BSO's Assistant Director of Program Publications Robert Kirzinger, the term "classical music" has become so all-inclusive that it doesn't have much at all to do with ancient "classical" art. But two recent live performances, by BMOP and the Mark Morris Dance Group, have focused on music that refers to ancient classical themes.
The BMOP program, led by music director Gil Rose, began with Five Greek Dances by the much admired but, in these parts, rarely performed Athenian composer and Schoenberg student Nikos Skalkottas, who died in 1949 at the age of 45. The dances are from 1936, and cover a range of folk material in a rich, almost Hollywood orchestral texture — lively, tuneful, rhythmically infectious pieces for strings in the tradition of Brahms, Dvorak, Enescu, and Bartók.
But the nitty-gritty of the program consisted of three substantial pieces based on Greek mythology, two of them originally composed for dance. Elliott Carter's The Minotaur was commissioned for Ballet Society, the immediate predecessor of the New York City Ballet. George Balanchine was scheduled to choreograph it, and he worked with Carter on the scenario. But Balanchine left the company (hoping to take over the Paris Ballet) and returned after The Minotaur had already gone into production, choreographed by John Taras, with Taras and a teenaged Tanaquil Le Clercq dancing the leading roles of Theseus and Ariadne.
The premiere took place in 1947. And the score was Carter's last major work before his Cello Sonata a year later, the piece with Carter's newly thought-out idea of "metrical modulation"— one could say the piece in which Carter became Carter. The ballet itself has disappeared, but with its lean yet lavishly textured sonorities, surprising melodic depths, and complex but driving narrative structure, the score of The Minotaur holds up remarkably well in concert. In one particularly memorable passage, the heartbeat of the Minoan Queen Pasiphaë, who is sexually obsessed with the Minotaur, morphs into the pounding of the hammers building the labyrinth. Rose led a gripping, superbly played performance. There's a good Nonesuch recording with Gerard Schwarz, but the good news is that BMOP will soon be releasing its own recording.
Rose next led one of the best live performances I've ever heard of one of the 20th century's most sublime ballet scores, Stravinsky's Apollo (originally titled in 1928 Apollon musagète ("Apollo, Leader of the Muses"), Balanchine's earliest extant ballet for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and one of his supreme and supremely inventive masterpieces. (An earlier version, first performed in the US less than two months earlier, with choreography by Adolph Bolm, has disappeared.)
Gorgeously scored for strings, and making near-impossible demands (almost all of which BMOP met), Apollo is composed largely in "Alexandrines," the iambic hexameter rhythm of "classic" French verse. The coolly delicious, memorable musical variations deal with the birth of Apollo, the lessons he gives three of his Muses (Calliope, Polyhymnia, and most endearingly and crucially for a ballet, Terpsichore), and the final Apotheosis, their mysteriously moving summons to the heights of Mt. Parnassus, their new home.
The last work on the program was the newest, 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lewis Spratlan's big orchestral tone poem, Apollo and Daphne Variations (1987). More like the Carter than the Stravinsky, with its rich textures and unexpected narrative turns, it writes Spratlan "mines the heart of European Romanticism." The main theme, he told the audience before the concert, was written as a kind of challenge for one of Spratlan's Amherst students — a 16-bar passage that depicts the aggressor Apollo and his chaste victim, who gets turned into a laurel tree to avoid the god's clutches. That theme, Spratlan's note continues, "appears in its original form as a piano solo" and "emerges from the tonal mist as a kind of found object." It comes quite early — maybe four or five minutes into the piece — and sounds like a section from a lost piano work by Schumann. You think you've heard it before — but it couldn't have been from Davidsbündlertänze or Kreisleriana — could it? It's an inspired imitation and the most breathtaking, daring moment in this thoroughly impressive score.