The January program in the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s season almost always emphasizes Boston-based composers of the present day or recent past. On Friday night Gil Rose led the group in three world premieres by composers of whom two still live and work in the area, while the third studied and taught here before moving elsewhere. The three pieces were very different in character, all worth hearing, and all extremely well played.
Elena Ruehr, the Michigan-born and MIT-based composer has the longest history with BMOP, having been the ensemble’s first composer in residence (2000-2005). During those years, three of her orchestral works received performances; one of them, Sky Above Clouds, is a counterpart to Summer Days, the work premiered this week. In 2006 BMOP joined with the late-lamented Opera Boston in a festival of recent operas, one of which was Ruehr’s Toussaint Before the Spirits, which they recorded.
Summer Days is one of three orchestral scores inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe, conceived as a musical triptych (or perhaps a kind of program symphony) that will be issued on a forthcoming CD. Each work is playable on its own, but I’m also looking forward to hearing all three as a group.
The painting that inspired Summer Days, in the Whitney Museum in New York, features a deer’s skull in the foreground of a western landscape. Anyone knowing of the artist’s penchant for the wide open New Mexico spaces in her paintings is perhaps already primed to hear the voice of Copland, at least in the brassy opening gesture, but the work is by no means an homage or imitation. The broad symphonic phrases, especially in massed strings and brass against unflagging rhythmic drive with faster gestures, often in woodwinds and percussion makes for an energetic ride that carries the listener along. Personally I found the weighty string and brass sonorities to recall (at least in sheer sound) a very different piece, Hindemith’s Music for Strings, Brass, and Percussion. Assuming that Summer Days is designed as the closing section of the triptych, it will bring the full score to a brilliant brassy close, as it did this single movement here.
Before the second piece on the program, composer Ken Ueno came out to speak about his piece, expressing a mild concern that the mere fact that the composer felt the need to say something would mark the work as “weird.” Certainly it was an outlier in the program, with a unique sonority that included quarter tones as part of the tonal mix, but more especially in the featured instrument for which it was written—a standard cello played by a remarkable musician, Frances-Marie Uitti, who has developed the technique of playing (on occasion) with two bows simultaneously, arranged in her right hand at a slight angle, which allows her, if she desires, to play all four strings of the cello at once. Of course, that also requires tremendous dexterity of the left hand stopping the four strings in order to produce the proper pitches.
Ueno told the audience that he especially liked writing pieces for players so unique that it was questionable whether anyone else would ever be able to perform the work. So far, at least, that would seem to be the situation with Hapax Legomenon, as he titled this Concerto for two-bowed cello and orchestra. On the other hand, the history of music is filled with examples of music seeming impossible in one generation for which later musicians accept the implicit challenge and learn to perform it, so it is not at all impossible the some future cellists will choose to learn the repertory created for Uitti and take it out of the realm of works that can only be heard in a recording made by the original dedicatee.
As Ueno explained in a note printed in the concert program, the kind of virtuosity that this concerto calls for is not the traditional David-versus-Goliath opposition of soloist (alone, fast moving, and fast thinking) against the orchestra (big, heavy able perhaps to drown the soloist out), but rather “a virtuosity of vertical harmony, rather than horizontal speed.” Indeed, this very factor makes Hapax Legomenon a high atypical work for its designation as a “concerto.” The the solo cello begins vigorously sawing at a single pitch (and with just one bow), the other cellos join in as companions for a time, but soon the soloist takes the second bow and begins the delicate, and very complex, sonorities that cannot be imitated by the remainder of the orchestra, at least not on a single instrument. To approximate the soloist’s thick ripe sonorities, the other strings divide and subdivide, so that one each member of the orchestra’s string ensemble is playing a unique part.
The overall effect is one of generally slow, sustained, dense, complicated sonorities that are difficult to parse, especially on a first hearing, because the language is not just equal-tempered but also draws from natural overtones and from quarter tones. The work ends very quietly with a quotation from the hymn “Come, thou fount of every blessing” for which Ueno finds a special significance in the second line of text, for this score built of mixed and elaborate harmonies: “tune my heart to sing thy Grace.” Hapax legomenon is a work that is likely to reveal its secrets very gradually, as the listener lives with, and eventually learns to enter its unique harmonic world.
The final work on the program—taking the entire second half and calling for the largest orchestral ensemble—was David Rakowski’s Piano Concerto No. 2, written for the splendid Chicago-based pianist Amy Briggs, who played it with terrific control, panache and energy–not only on the piano keyboard but also inside the instrument, plucking the strings, occasionally turning to a celesta set to her right, and eventually playing both celesta and piano together.
Rakowski, who teaches at Brandeis, composed the concerto during a residency in France in 2011. He explained that, before getting on the plane to leave, he had a long conversation with Amy Briggs “about what kind of things she wanted in her concerto.” He conceived of other material that got used in the concerto in a dream. Briggs made several suggestions, including alternations of solo and tutti in a quasi-Baroque texture, jazz elements, and the inclusion of the celesta. The sheer size and variety of the score indicate how seriously the composer took these and other suggestions.
Rakowski has composed an enormous number of piano etudes—100 of them, between 1988 and 2010, at which time he decided to stop…though, as it turns out, only for a while. The etudes may be finished, but he has already composed some forty piano preludes. This interest in piano pieces bespeaks a great interest on the composer’s part in the keyboard medium (though he disclaims any special ability as a pianist). Amy Briggs has played many of them, and technical elements from some of them can hardly fail to appear in a big work like the concerto.
The first movement (of three) begins with fiercely motoric energy, but a slow middle section produces one of the most marvelous touches of color in the piece: The soloist slowly plucks individual strings inside the piano, one at a time. Each time the plucked string creates a sharp attack on a pitch, which is simultaneously attacked and held by one of the woodwind instruments, given the magical feeling that the piano string has somehow become (for example) a clarinet, while that quiet tone is held, then tapers into silence.
The second movement is mostly slow and quiet, conceived as an elegy in memory of Milton Babbitt, who died shortly before work on this movement began. Rakowski quotes a row from Babbitt’s Solo Requiem in the clarinet at the beginning, inverting it at the end.
The final movement includes several references to jazz gestures suggesting everything from Stravinsky’s irregular “jazzy” works of the early ‘20s, hints of stride, and more. Among the musical elements that tie the full concerto together are a hypnotically repeated two-note figure in the xylophone—a slowly repeated descending fifth, to which the piano responds quietly. After a number of repetitions, this quiet obsession veers off course, as the two notes of the descending fifth move elsewhere (the passage occurs near the end of both first and third movements). The celesta sound and the plucking inside the piano also generate moments so striking in their first appearance that later appearances provide a clear sense of shaping of the piece.
The audience reaction to the concerto—both in its rich repertory of enticing ideas and the brilliant performance by both soloist and orchestra—was immediate and extended.