I had been looking forward to this concert ever since I saw an earlier misprint last September claiming Sangita would be performed in November. The BMOP site finally posted the right date. Ever since I heard the Modern Jazz Quartet's “Music From the Third Stream” album, I've always held my breath, anticipating the performance of the next composition embracing cultural or aesthetic fusion. Would I be treated to a work of great beauty, depth and complexity, or assaulted by a failed attempt that crashed on the shoals, maybe near something deep, but drowning nonetheless?
I've had mixed responses to BMOP in the past. Their concert in 2007 that included Stephen Mackey's “Dreamhouse” and Evan Ziporyn's “Hard Drive” was a terrific, energetic, and inventive, new music merged with hard rocking electronics. But I also saw them at Harvard performing with Cristina Zavalloni, who travels with the Dutch Composer Louis Andriessen. She sang a work I really love, “Passegiata in tram in America e ritorno.” BMOP overwhelmed her, and the pure beauty of her voice was lost to the brass. (An aside: “Passegiata” is itself a work that has elements of fusion, combining Andriessen's normal material with smatterings of renaissance melodies.) I sometimes wish that BMOP would find wider dynamic range. Maybe that's why I go to see the Jack Quartet before I go to see the BSO. I think of Indian music as personal, improvised, intimate, and internally responsive. Also reflective, lugubrious, and ecstatic. All this can be conveyed on only one, two, or three instruments. That's another part of the equation.
There was a warning in the program notes: “. . . the listener should bear in mind that this music isn't intended to sound like traditional Indian music.” I'd prepared myself by listening to Ravi Shanker classical ragas, George Harrison’s “Within You and Without You,” and Christine Southworth's “Heavy Metal.” (Okay, not exactly Indian, but I was getting warmed up.) That wasn't really the right preparation. With the exception of the Ziporyn piece, sonically and structurally the works were, in many ways, a very Western group of pieces, more influenced by Indian stories, myths, and philosophy than by what we normally think of as Indian music.
The first piece, “Naimittika Pralaya,” by Vineet Shende, is a tone poem, embracing the big Indian ideas: existence and non-existence, destruction and rebirth. There is an interestingly prepared piano, as well as some retuning in some of the strings, which, when combined with use of equal-tempered and naturally-tempered scales, produces a compelling microtonal environment. From the opening we hear wonderful melodies rising to the surface out of a kind of complex stew of textured, complex dissonances. Shende moves then to more melodic portions and almost Bartok-like melodies, passing through big, blocky chord shifts and long passages of strings doubled at octaves, wonderful sliding, and rising melodies. He uses techniques of playing near the bridge, with many leisurely sostenuto sections over a pizzicato walking bass. Late in the piece, we do hear sections that sound sitar-like, or even Electric Light Orchestra-like. There are many effective passages that evoke the sound of crying. If only the world of new music were orderly like a Mozart symphony! Shende describes much of the melodic material as coming from specific ragas. It would be good to hear this again, and I think that's a sign of how compelling the music was. BMOP was excellent here, well-balanced, and delivered this complex piece quite elegantly.
Next up was Evan Ziporyn's piece, “Mumbai.” It seems like he's just about everywhere this spring. He was involved in MIT's 150-birthday concert (which included an embarrassing piece blending the story-telling of Noam Chomsky with the playing of the Kronos Quartet.) The title is meant to invoke of the horrible terrorist incident of 2008. “Mumbai” features the extraordinary tabla playing of Sandeep Das, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble. Perhaps evoking Ziporyn’s love of Gamelan, this piece opens with a group of Tibetan singing bowls, which sit on little cushions, and are played by moving a stick to get them to resonate. (Head over to YouTube and search for “Weaving tones on Tibetan Singing Bowls” to see the many techniques that can be used with them.) The bowls produce a huge number of overtones. But they are … um … Tibetan. No matter. I love Gamelan. The hushed richness of the bells yields to percussion. The bells are struck. The strings form a kind of drone, and then the tabla enters after a few minutes. Ziporyn has the tabla alternating between being a solo instrument and accompanying percussion in a fluid manner. As always, the spirit of minimalism influences Ziporyn's work and there is a long section built around what is first a rapid 5-note figure, and then a pair of 5-note, 7-note figures, accompanied by the tabla. Sandeep tried to make eye contact with the other members of the orchestra, but they were totally immersed in their scores. The section then transitions to a long and aimless-feeling part that feels like it was driving to a cadence. Near the end comes a harmonious slow section, carried by slow-moving strings, with melodies that seem to emerge out of nowhere. Tabla accompanies here, but rather than seeming Indian, it feels like a section from the late Romantic era. Finally, a recapitulation with slowly-building cross rhythms, accelerates to the end. Ziporyn really knows how to use a star like Sandeep, perhaps because of his rock-and-roll or jazz influences. Not always out front, but with opportunities to be. I like very much that I forgot about the orchestra and conductor during this piece, almost to the point that it seemed like a self-directed work. Evan sure knows his way around the percussion world!
I am not fond of modern “art songs,” with their excess of vibrato or love of dissonant music slavishly tied to the text of Wallace Steven's poems. I only toss this in to say there are a number of Peter Child's art songs that I haven't enjoyed much. But there were many sections of “Shanti” that seem uniquely interesting, perhaps because of the way he chose to build the underlying scales, and because of the way he didn't shy away from chords generated even when they were sitting at the edge of cheesiness. The scales were, according to Childs, adapted from the Melakarta, a 17th century Indian scale-generating system. He used more traditional Western techniques (inversion, retrogression) to build the piece.
Each of the eight movements claims to invoke a different aesthetic emotion. The first movement was exciting, pitting a string melody that was descending with a big, bright brass polytonally-related arpeggio. The effect was powerful and simultaneously nightmarish. The second movement was a cousin of the second movement of Mozart's 40th, with long suspended strings in a perpetually descending line. Other sections sounded almost Russian, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf perhaps, or his Lieutenant Kije Suite with big tonal cadences. Another movement was heraldic and military-sounding. Still another sounded composed for Hollywood, with Disney-cartoon-like chords. This is a long work and moved towards a quiet peaceful conclusion, with chords Grieg would have loved (except for the dissonant transitions), harp-like arpeggios and finally a delicate finish with xylophones and sustained horns. I lost track of what movement I was listening to. BMOP really nailed this piece. When the brass has an opportunity to show off, they really can.
By the time the rarely-performed piece by John Foulds was introduced, everyone, including the orchestra, was getting tired. The connection to India felt tenuous. (Foulds died in Calcutta of Cholera, which give him cred.) There are three movements, Action, Bliss, and Will. I found the first movement to be big, bold, and boring. The second movement features a “wordless” women's chorus. That, unfortunately, reminded me of one of the settings on my multi-talented Yamaha keyboard. The last movement was quite a kick, though: kind of noirish, kind of martial, with drums and crashes. There was even a little sax interlude. You could almost imagine a serious-sounding narrator for the piece, as part of a movie. But as I said, it was getting late. Maybe it was a kind of New Music 1812 Overture. India?
So just how Indian was this concert? Not counting Sandeep Das, it was far less Indian than Petel's Market in Waltham. But maybe that didn't matter. Ziporyn and his colleagues brings Gamelan into some very engaging works, without the listener feeling that it's grafted onto the piece. I don't think this happened as much with the Indian themes in this music. Instead, Gil Rose and BMOP delivered an interesting and unusual set of pieces, not easily categorized into “European Modernism” or “post-minimalism,” or “third stream.” When the concert ended, I felt my mind shouting out, “Wait, I'm just starting to figure out what's going on here. When can I get the CD?”