Time was when Boston had a City Censor, and books and plays drummed up trade by having them “Banned in Boston.” The Boston Modern Orchestra Project, headed by conductor Gil Rose, came up with the deliciously punning title “Band in Boston” for its Jordan Hall concert on January 22. Indeed there was not a bowed string instrument to be seen on stage all evening – nothing but 36 wind players, plus five percussionists, a harpist, and three pianists.
The program offered works by five composers, two famous – Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Percy Grainger (1882-1961) – and three lesser known – Harold Meltzer (b. 1966), Wayne Peterson (b. 1927), and Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943).
Opening the concert was Stravinsky’s classic Symphonies of Wind Instruments, written in 1920 to memorialize Claude Debussy. It calls for some two dozen woodwind and brass players, and is cast in three related tempi. There is a wonderfully chosen chord with many notes, which recurs from time to time. The work was performed with precision. (The premiere took place in London in 1921, led by Serge Koussevitzky, who would in 1924 assume the music directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.)
Meltzer was represented by Privacy, a 14-minute concerto for piano written in 2008 and revised this December. It was commissioned by pianist Ursula Oppens, a champion of new music (and a 1965 honors graduate of Radcliffe). She premiered it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and came to Boston for this East Coast premiere.
The composer has called the piece “essentially an anti-concerto,” whatever that is supposed to mean. At the start the piano scampers around continuously. The soloist is silent for some time in the middle, with an emphasis on woodwinds, but then resumes hyperactivity. There are some telling bass-drum strokes and hand-hit bongos, but the scoring is not very appealing, and the entire enterprise didn’t add up to much.
Grainger – pianist, composer, conductor and folk-music collector – was born in Australia, settled in London in 1901, immigrated to the United States in 1914, played in the Army band during World War I, became a citizen in 1918, and later served briefly as chairman of the music department at New York University. He was a real eccentric: he survived on a weird diet, believed in the racial superiority of Scandinavians, was a sado-masochist, and in winter slept naked with open bedroom windows.
A reaction to servicemen sent to possible death in war, his The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart was sketched in 1918 but not completed until programmed for a Carnegie Hall performance in 1948, which Grainger conducted. Running 14 minutes, it opens with a portative-organ solo, with prominent parts later for brass, harp and piano. It is not solidly structured, but exhibits Grainger’s usual expert scoring.
After intermission came Peterson’s And the Winds Shall Blow (1993-94), for saxophone quartet and a wind ensemble, with important roles for harp, piano, and timpani. This was written shortly after Peterson won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for The Face of the Night, the Heart of the Dark, when the Board overruled the music jury, which publicly complained over the vetoing of its choice, the late Ralph Shapey.
Peterson calls And the Winds a “fantasy,” and it does not have a clear traditional form, but keeps the ears engrossed as it moves from a leisurely beginning to mostly loud and intricate writing. Largely atonal, the work culminates in an extended cadenza for the four differently-sized saxophones (here played passionately by the noted PRISM Quartet).
Concluding the concert was Recoil (2004) by Joseph Schwantner, holder of a master’s and doctorate from Northwestern University, and the 1979 Pulitzer for Aftertones of Infinity (no disagreement between Board and jury this time). Recoil is the fourth in a series of a half dozen wind pieces aimed specifically at college concert bands.
This 12-minute work is colorful and brash. Included in the instrumentarium are a contrabassoon, two saxophones and a piano (with the lid up). There was plenty for the percussionists to do; one of them had to handle tamtam, cymbal, tubular bells, and – simultaneously – two triangles. And the women even were surprisingly called on to put down their instruments and sing wordlessly for a bit. This is a dazzling piece, smashingly executed.