If you attended a performance of the Boston Symphony Orchestra last fall, chances are pretty good that you heard one or more of Beethoven’s symphonies. The BSO, widely recognized as one of the world’s most elite orchestras, presented a complete set of these vaunted works throughout October and November and has several additional performances scattered throughout their concert season. My hometown orchestra, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, dedicated this, their 116th season, to the theme “Beethoven and Beyond.” Their concerts are centered around a complete series of the nine symphonies.
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 BMOP continued its season last Friday with their Band in Boston concert, celebrating 20th and 21st century music for wind ensemble with two repertoire mainstays by Stravinsky and Percy Grainger, as well as some newer compositions by Harold Meltzer, Wayne Peterson, and Joseph Schwantner. Robert Kirzinger’s excellent program notes make the case that band music has lost some of its historical prestige because the bands (military, university, etc.) have themselves lost their prestige, despite their ability, popularity, and cultural and social significance.
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is known for exploring a wide variety of 20th- and 21st-century instrumental music. On January 22nd at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, under the baton of music director Gil Rose, the group forayed into wind ensemble territory with a program of varying styles and with mixed effectiveness.
If you saw sparks flying over Boston’s Back Bay last night, it might have been the result of the energy and excitement generated by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project during their performance in Jordan Hall. BMOP’s primary mission is to commission, perform and record new orchestral work. They also perform 20th-century “classics” with great gusto.
For this New Sounds, listen to John Schaefer’s completely personal and opinionated look at the ten best new music releases of 2009. There just might be something by a death jazz piano trio, a banjo player, and perhaps an indie rocker’s tribute to a major thoroughfare, along with some big band music.
Derek Bermel: Voices
This is a fine tribute from the highly acclaimed Boston Modern Orchestra Project to 30 years of Elliott Schwartz’s idiosyncratic output. Each of the six chamber concertos, four in first recordings, features a single soloist in a continuity ranging from monologue to free-ranging superimposed textures. Schwartz describes his technique as “different strategies for dealing with the ‘concerto’ principle—six variations, not on a theme, but on a genre.” An essential part of his idiom is quotation from older styles, actual or implied but often unobtrusive.
This work is from the 1950’s and relates to Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes in that it concerns the emotions of Indian aesthetics. It’s also his last work before he committed himself seriously to the composition of music using chance operations. But like the contemporaneous concerto for prepared piano, it was made by beginning with a chart with rows and columns containing cells of fixed sounds, which he assembled into continuity by making moves about the chart.
My shot at the best classical recordings of 2009 turns out to be top-heavy with pianists and French composers. Funny how that happens: You begin a process with what seems like scrupulous fairness, sorting through hundreds of discs, aiming for balance, trying to demonstrate one’s wide-openness to the whole musical universe. But somehow, the results wind up reflecting personal preferences, anyway.
Music of Louis Andriessen
Cristina Zavalloni, mezzo-soprano; Monica Germino, violin; Boston Modern Orchestra Project;
Gil Rose, conductor (BMOP/sound 1011)
It was another strong year for the homegrown BMOP label, and this disc devoted to the major Dutch post-minimalist composer Louis Andriessen telegraphs the quality and integrity of the series as a whole.
© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company
Sixteen Dances by John Cage, a work from 1951, in a new release by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. We'll hear dances seven thru sixteen.
These six little concerti are typical of Schwartz’s gleefully eclectic style, the presentation of the many facets of which is facilitated through his espousal of a deep- and wide-ranging use of ‘collage’ technique. What this means in practical terms is that the music presents a kaleidoscopically shifting assemblage of layers of material, which can range from literal quotations of classical or romantic models in their original tonal language to reminiscences of the styles of earlier music (of many kinds) to frankly atonal, abstract and complex gestures.
Articles, a blog, and a book by the music critic of The New Yorker
Recommended New CDs
- Edward Elgar, Cello Concerto (arr. Tertis/Carpenter), Schnittke, Viola Concerto; David Carpenter, Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra (Ondine)
- John Cage, Sixteen Dances; Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP/sound)
- Bernstein, Mass; Marin Alsop conducting the Baltimore Symphony (Naxos)
John Cage’s 1951 Sixteen Dances was constructed by using a table of 64 different sounds arranged into eight rows of eight columns. Only one of the sounds could appear at any point in the piece. The chart’s contents gradually change as the piece progresses, as the sounds are grouped into musical phrases. Sometimes the music is as spiky and pointillistic as Webern, yet other times repeated melodic fragments bubble up to the surface, only to dissipate just as your inner ear assumes that rhythmic groove might transpire.
Classical music as we know it is evolving on a daily basis. Orchestras across the world are developing new musical techniques—blending centuries-old practices with modern innovations and creating sounds that bring Bach and Beethoven with 20th century Modernism. At the forefront of these efforts is Boston’s BMOP/sound, the nation’s foremost record company launched by an orchestra. The record company already has a dozen albums under its belt and is celebrating its 13th album— Elliott Schwartz: Chamber Concertos I-VI.
While we are now fairly used to the idea of the chance operations in his music, it all had to start somewhere for John Cage, and Sixteen Dances is seen as a turning point in his career. This was the last work Cage composed before he committed himself entirely to the use of chance operations. It also represents an intermediate step on the way towards Cage’s deployment of techniques that work with predefined collections of sounds.
The title itself, The Prairie, gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect. Copland-esque open harmonies abound, proto-Bernstein fugues wind their way in, and Carl Sandburg’s 1918 poem is very much a product of its time (although the notes make the point that its now toe-curling treatment of Native Americans was far in advance of Hollywood’s at the same time).
Given the large number of fine recordings released in the past year, a first-time visitor to Planet Earth would hardly suspect that the record industry is in the doldrums. Nor will the music lovers on your holiday gift list think anything is amiss, if you present them with one or more of the sonic goodies in the guide that follows.
Eclecticism is everywhere now, but Derek Bermel makes his style-hopping colleagues seem lazy in this set, which includes works based on Ghanian xylophone figures (Dust Dances), Bulgarian folk music (Thracian Echoes) and an ear-catching blend of speech melodies, Irish tunes and contemporary jazz (Voices, a clarinet concerto with Mr. Bermel as the soloist).
The human desire to produce a loud noise by striking one object with another must be as old as communication itself, and like all histories, it has its high points and lows. The period between the two world wars, for instance, was a very good time for the art and science of banging. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project reminded us of this fact on Friday night with a memorable concert that was in equal parts ambitious musical event, cultural time warp, and sonic magical mystery tour.