Tour de force. I’ve been wading through a lot of contemporary dramatic music these days, mostly from a sense of duty—a very bad reason for learning—from Robert Grey’s “Navajo oratorio” Enemy Slayer to Daron Hagen’s Shining Brow, an opera on Frank Lloyd Wright’s marital irregularities and the awful horrifying destruction of the first Taliesin. I don’t consider either of these examples obviously terrible, but I would feel better for the current state of contemporary music if they were. Both show great craft and at least some talent.
I listen to a lot of contemporary music and like to think I have it all figured out. And along comes Talus which greets us with a blood-curdling scream more appropriate to Hitchcock’s Psycho. Then follow Ueno’s overtone vocalizations akin to Tuvan throat singing. I admit it, I smiled. Three trips through this disc have dulled the surprises. Beyond the shock value and clever rhetorical gestures, the mild results don’t equal the multifaceted intents.
In the early 1990s, when so-called CNN operas based on actual historical events became all the rage, you’d occasionally come upon a new classical CD stickered with a warning label due to bad language and racy situations.
William Thomas McKinley (b. 1938) studied with Foss, Copland, and Schuller, and has performed as a jazz pianist with Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Eddie Gomez, and others. These three pieces owe a lot, in McKinley’s own words, to his love for Stravinsky, Ives, and Varese.
Contemporary American composer Lisa Bielawa (b.1968) majored in literature at Yale University and her love for the written word is one source of inspiration for her music. She values her relationships with the musicians she works with, and many of the compositions on this disc are dedicated to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), where she completed a three year residency project in 2009. She tours with the Phillip Glass Ensemble and is the winner of the 2009 Rome Prize.
The first time I saw Ken Ueno was at the 2004 performance of Philip Glass’s Music in 12 Parts at Alice Tully Hall; he seemed excited and intense, and also strangely disarming. His music is like that, too. We’ve corresponded a few times and I’m always interested in what he’s doing.
Boston Modern Orchestra Project has long been forging ties with contemporary composers and developing new audiences for modern music in the concert hall and beyond. Every season since 2000 BMOP has hosted a composer-in-residence and in 2008 it launched house record label BMOP/sound, focusing on new and otherwise unrecorded orchestral works. For three years beginning with the 2006-07 season, composer Lisa Bielawa served as the BMOP resident composer, and her BMOP/sound CD In Medias Res draws a map through her time working with the musicians of this group.
Lisa Bielawa is a phenomenon. The perky San Francisco native who, judging from her booklet photo, appears to be very much on the sunny side of life, started her career as a singer. After touring with the Philip Glass ensemble from 1992 and founding in 1997 the MATA Festival to promote the work of new composers, she began writing her own music about ten years ago. Right from the beginning, she showed a decided preference for the larger forms of music.
Dominick Argento’s Jonah and the Whale, completed in 1973, is an idiosyncratic, colorful, stylistically varied musical version of the well-known Biblical tale. The work is scored for narrator, tenor, bass and mixed chorus, accompanied by the unusual forces of three trombones, three percussionists, piano, harp and organ—a “trio of trios,” as the composer points out in his informative notes.
Dominick Argento’s Jonah and the Whale (1973), for narrator, two soloists, chorus, and a small chamber group of three trombones, three percussionists, piano, harp, and organ, cobbles together the story through the 14th-century poem “Patience, or Jonah and the Whale” interspersed with 4th-century Vulgate Psalms, 17th-century Protestant hymns, 19th-century work songs and sea shanties, and vaguely lyrical 20th-century Britten-esque 12-tone declamation set against a firm tonal background.
Dominick Argento delivers a vivid account of this Bible story. Completed in 1973, it is an early contribution to a genre—the large-scale choral work—in which Argento (b. 1927) has increasingly worked.
Wonderful new music, all of it. Dust Dances is charming and jazzy, and reminiscent of Bernstein at his most relaxed. Thracian Echoes is exotic and atmostpheric, conjuring up visions of John Fowles’ The Magus. Elixir is a moving and soothing interlude with wonderful antiphonal effects. Voices, a conversational concerto, features a range of interchanges between the composer’s solo clarinet and the orchestra, with an almost raunchily bluesy conclusion. Performances are tip-top, and the sound clear and immediate.
Composer-vocalist Lisa Bielawa’s solo and orchestral music will be released as a 2-CD set entitled In medias res by BMOP/sound in June 2010. Performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), conducted by Artistic Director Gil Rose, the first disc, an SACD, includes four orchestral works: Roam (2001); Double Violin Concerto (2008) featuring violinist/vocalist Carla Kihlstedt and violinist Colin Jacobsen; unfinish’d, sent (2000) featuring the composer as soprano soloist; and In medias res, Concerto for Orchestra(2009).
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s newest recording vibrantly illustrates Dominick Argento’s ability to merge myriad artistic sources. Jonah and the Whale was inspired by an Albertus Pictor painting on the ceiling of a church in Härkeberga, Sweden. Scored for chorus, instrumental nonet, narrator and soloists, the work exemplifies the American composer’s colorful and discerning aesthetic, as well as his heightened gifts in the vocal realm.
The Jordan Hall stage was crammed full of seventy players for the season’s final concert by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) on May 28. Under its artistic director Gil Rose, we heard music by five composers, the earliest dating from 1989. For two works the distinguished baritone Sanford Sylvan (b. 1953) was the soloist.
After giving each orchestra section a spotlight concert this season, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and artistic director Gil Rose brought a full symphonic complement to Jordan Hall on Friday, with a program to match: five canvases of splashy instrumentation. The complement was in fine form indeed, zealous and bold. New-music advocacy doesn’t get more luxurious.
On Friday, May 28, in Jordan Hall, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, a.k.a. BMOP, presented its last concert of the season -— five works composed in the past 25 years, two of which featured the great baritone Sanford Sylvan. BMOP’s past season had featured concerts showcasing groups within the orchestra (strings in “Strings Attached,” percussion and keyboards in the “Big Bang” concert, winds in “Band in Boston”). For this concert, deploying the full orchestra, BMOP presented works by four living composers, all in attendance, and Orchestra Piece by Leon Kirchner, who died last fall.
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project commissions, performs, and records music of the twentieth and twenty first centuries exclusively, allowing listeners to hear full-sized orchestral performances of modern compositions, previously performed more typically by small groups like the Kronos Quartet and the Chameleon Arts Ensemble.
Clarinetist and composer Derek Bermel has donned the motley hat of eclecticism early in his career. For the most part, it’s a happy fit. His Voices CD showcases multiple styles and influences and succeeds in presenting him as an individualist composer.