The “modern” in Boston Modern Orchestra Project varies in its meaning. Sometimes it refers broadly to music of the past several decades, such as its recent revivals of operas by Virgil Thomson and Michael Tippett. On Friday at Jordan Hall, though, its focus was on the other sense of the word: what’s happening right now. On the bill were three world premieres, all commissions from composers with local connections and associations with BMOP. This was, to my mind, the group at its vital, cutting-edge best.
Elena Ruehr named her piece after Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting “Summer Days,” a vaguely surrealistic meeting of a deer skull, Southern flowers, and a barren landscape. It opens with a series of majestic, brightly colored chords in the brass, whose reappearance at various points delineates the piece’s architecture. Steady string figurations lay a groundwork as melodies unspool in the winds. The remarkable facet of the piece is the way motion and stillness work together: The music always seems to be moving ahead, yet the landscape, like O’Keeffe’s, remains the same. At the end the brass chords reappear and stumble downward to a surprisingly uncertain close. The brass playing was brilliant.
Ken Ueno joked nervously that, as the only composer to address the audience, he was worried he’d written “the weird piece.” “Hapax Legomenon,” a cello concerto, was written for Frances-Marie Uitti, who has devised a way of playing the cello with two bows simultaneously. Ueno exploited the technique to widen the cello’s harmonic palette. Much of the music’s eerie timbres come from chords that include both even-tempered notes and quarter tones. Most of the piece moves slowly, like heavy clouds that portend a lengthy, soaking rain. When those clouds lighten, the cello is left playing notes that disintegrate into noise, and finally to pure breath and silence, leaving a mysterious aura in its wake.
The most well-rounded pleasures of the evening came from David Rakowski’s Second Piano Concerto, composed for pianist Amy Briggs. (The pair documented the piece’s writing on the blog “The Amy and Davy Show.”) Briggs has recorded most of Rakowski’s piano etudes, and accommodated the concerto’s virtuosic demands with shockingly little outward effort.
It’s a big piece, well over half an hour, and a mercurial one. It begins with a bustling piano solo that has jazz leanings and pungent harmonies (think Art Tatum playing Bartok). Varieties of jazz recur throughout the piece, as do shimmering stillness, plaintive melodies, and rapid-fire trade-offs between soloist and orchestra. What makes the concerto so engrossing was how natural its evolutions among styles, textures, and moods seemed. The middle movement — a memorial to Milton Babbitt, who died while the concerto was being written — was completely transfixing.
Each of these wonderful pieces deserves repeat performances. The orchestra, under artistic director Gil Rose, played with an assurance that is both familiar and still astonishing.