The Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, conductor, is in residence this year at Wellesley College and presenting three concerts, of which the first, entitled, “Luminous Noise: Three Women Compose,” was presented on Saturday, December 11, at the Houghton Chapel. The acoustics there have always been excellent — the venue is often used for recording projects — and continue to be so after the recent renovation. This concert was one of three performances of the same program at Bowdoin College and Tufts University on this same weekend.
The three composers are Jennifer Johnson, a.k.a. Jenny Olivia Johnson (b. 1978), who joined the Wellesley faculty last year, Chen Yi (b. 1953), and the English composer (of Scottish birth) Judith Weir (b. 1954). Although a world premiere of Johnson’s Living Sin had been announced, we heard instead her Dollar Beers (Redondo Beach ‘96), written while she was still a Ph.D. candidate at New York University, and premiered in North Adams at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival, MASS MoCA, in 2006. It is for amplified soprano participating as an instrument (performed by Wellesley senior Lucy McVeigh), delay pedal, and chamber ensemble comprising flute/piccolo, violin, violoncello, piano, and two percussion players. I wish I could tell you who these and the other members of the expert sextets or septets were, throughout the concert, but unfortunately they were not named in the concert program. Although the “program” of the piece is quite maudlin — having to do with teenage fears, real and imagined — the work itself is stunning in its simplicity and power. Its shape is one long crescendo, based on long, slow chiming dissonances to create the ominous horror of the extra-musical program, followed by a short decrescendo, ending in a quiet piccolo solo. Ms. Johnson has a real ear for instrumental color and timbre, and this was a good introduction to her music.
The central focus of the concert was on three works by Chen Yi (b. 1953), who was present, and who is giving a master-class at Wellesley on Monday (Dec. 13). Chen is a prolific composer, skilled in her craft, who tends to reuse or adapt earlier works in the creation of new ones. Such is the case with her Suite for Cello and Chamber Winds (2004), adapted from her four-movement work, Sound of the Five for cello and string quartet (1998). The cello soloist in the Suite was Wellesley faculty member and busy freelancer David Russell, whose performance was admirable for its uncanny understanding and projection of what the piece was about: clarity, and distinct spacing of the instrumental ensemble, with (in his case) rich vibrato as appropriate or resonant pizzicato. His playing, too, was “luminous,” and he certainly held his own with the wind ensemble (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone) and percussion. The four movements, “Lusheng Ensemble,” “Echoes of the Set bells,” “Romance of Hsiao and Ch’in,” and “Flower Drums in Dance,” replicate sounds of traditional Chinese music and more Western gestures, skillfully moving back and forth among them.
Her next work, Sparkle (1992), is aptly named with its high dissonances and trills, including those played by the double bass and violoncello using harmonics. The octet (also including flute/piccolo, clarinet in E-flat, 2 percussion, piano, and violin) has a loud opening, and then bustles along in sections marked by rapid repeated notes, often in octaves or unisons, ending with a piccolo twitter. After intermission we heard two versions of her Wu Yu, which she introduced in a voice that could not be heard beyond the initial rows, something about using the same structure to produce different sounds. There are indeed two published versions of this work, one for six players (flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon, violin, cello, percussion), commissioned and first performed by the Boston Musica Viva in 2002, and one for seven (flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, contrabass). The first version here also employed sounds of traditional Chinese music, especially at the end. In fact, both versions ended with a percussive “blue note,” that is, a falling pitch after the initial one is struck. The second one was more dense, and Gil Rose was beginning to step up the tempo at which he conducted.
The concert ended with Judith Weir’s Tiger under the Table (2002-3), a two-movement work for fourteen players. The short second movement functions as a coda to the first. All sorts of expectations are set up — trumpet, bassoon and double-bass (pizzicato) solos, bright, jumpy winds contrasting with extended string phrases, but all is fragmented and conflicting. The dissonances never resolve, nor are they always tolerable. Again the tempi were fast, yea even rushed, and the players looked absolutely worn out at the end of this fifteen-minute work. Weir was visiting professor of composition at Harvard in 2003-2004, when the Fromm Foundation arranged for a performance of this work there by the Dinosaur Annex, under the direction of Scott Wheeler. Reviewing that concert, Richard Dyer wrote: “Four of them are a string quartet; the others, like the quartet, are living in their own worlds but try to figure out a way to live together. The piece…holds the mirror up to human nature and points to a better, more harmonious way.” Well, that’s a different narrative, I guess.
Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.