Friday’s wide-ranging Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert demonstrated how unhelpfully vague the umbrella term “modern music” can be. Some New England Conservatory link was the only correspondence among the disparate works, gathered under the title “Boston ConNECtion” (and performed under Jordan Hall’s architecturally ill-mannered “New England Conservatory” signboard, which continues to intrude on the season’s concert experience like a dinner-time telemarketer).
In some ways, NEC doctoral candidate Osnat Netzer’s Common Ground (a premiere) resembled an action movie - skillfully choreographed activity concealing a threadbare plot. If the thematic content lacked strong profile, Netzer admirably kept her Mozart-sized ensemble in fluid, kaleidoscopic motion with adroit orchestration.
Also premiered was Concert Piece II, for two clarinets and small orchestra, by Ezra Sims, venerable explorer of the far-flung intonation of an octave divided into 72 parts, rather than the customary 12. A reduced string complement diminished the outer fast sections’ harmonic context, but the slower, wind-anchored center revealed the exotic virtues of Sims’s sound world, veering from murky shadows to pungent brightness, orchidaceously vibrating close dissonances contrasting with the hollowed-out depth of wider intervals. The zenith, the excellent soloists Michael Norsworthy and Amy Advocat leading an incandescent, bracing chorale, was transporting.
William Bolcom’s 1983 Violin Concerto runs the gamut from Apollonian neoclassicism to an irresistible ragtime-and-jazz finale, in which even initially pedestrian themes engender Technicolor apotheoses. NEC student Byron Hitchcock was a fearlessly expressive soloist, though his finely honed tone was sometimes overpowered. Initially, his physically demonstrative playing seemed disconnected - the ensemble’s energy flowed past him rather than through him. In the stillness of the slow movement, soloist and orchestra clicked; the closing confabulation was a hoofer’s dream.
Michael Gandolfi’s Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra also carries neoclassic overtones, but the fascination was in how the simplest ideas a descending third, a dotted rhythm beget abundant rhetorical variety. Throughout the instrument’s range, encompassing tenor, baritone, and bass, Boston Symphony principal bassoonist Richard Svoboda (who premiered the work last year) swapped corresponding operatic temperaments - hero, menace, comic relief - with unassuming stylishness.
Leon Kirchner’s 1955 Toccata for Strings, Winds, and Percussion’s muscular, expressive post-Schoenberg atonality might have seemed an incongruous close, but echoed much of the evening in its rhythmic drive and confident directness of utterance. Artistic director Gil Rose, presented with Columbia University’s Alice M. Ditson Conductor’s Award prior to the concert, led notably crisp, articulate performances; the ensemble’s lean clarity ideally matched each divergent course.
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