Big ups to my composer compadre Ken Ueno. He’s had a heck of a busy year. In addition to an active teaching schedule at University of California-Berkeley, where he’s an Assistant Professor of Composition, he’s been busily composing, performing, and supervising recordings of his music.
In her program notes pianist Marilyn Nonken observes that David Rakowski “asks us, as only a serious composer can, to come and play.” That instinctive urge, be it expressed in science, mathematics, or art, is often thought to underlie our species’ creativity. In music, a composer can transform whimsical, transitory, impulsive, or improvisatory materials into a “serious” work, or he can choose to inject humor via parody, quotation, or even rude noises.
Given the short shrift faced by choral music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it’s surprising that Dominick Argento has attained the status he has. Argento’s creative output includes a vast array of operas, choral works and song cycles (one of which, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, earned him the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2004), yet a surprisingly small output of orchestral works: a relatively small number of symphonies and concerti, and practically no chamber works.
The timely highlight of Gil Rose’s latest BMOP (Boston Modern Orchestra Project) concert, “Strings Attached,” was a new/old piece (2004, revised 2009) for two string orchestras by Scott Wheeler now called Crazy Weather — the new title taken from a John Ashbery poem that begins, “It’s this crazy weather we’ve been having.” Thunderous snaps of antiphonal bass strings set off pizzicato raindrops that turn into Allegro sheets of musical rain. Of course, it’s an emotional landscape, as the exquisite Adagio makes even clearer.
The string section is a staple of any orchestra: The largest of the instrumental sections, the strings are the most prominently displayed. Strings are usually the most constant factor in any orchestral score, while woodwinds, brass, percussion are the variables. Perhaps it is ironic that the fate of the string section is to play some of the least sonically interesting parts. Strings are often consigned to betraying their vast range of timbre and tone color to complement and support more strident colors of other sections of the orchestra.
I was feeling a little, well, strung out this weekend (having seen both Itzhak Perlman and the Artemis String Quartet), so perhaps I simply wasn’t in the mood for “Strings Attached,” the latest concert by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (last Saturday at Jordan Hall). Or then again, maybe the concert was simply as mixed a bag as it seemed. At any rate, it proved a rather rambling evening, with perhaps no very deep lows, but only one real high.
It was probably the touchy economy, in part, that inspired Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project to build concerts this season around subsections of the orchestra rather than the full group; on Saturday, it was works for strings. And the orchestra’s most homogeneous group, its lyricism and opulence self-reinforcing, made for pretty classy thrift.
As the BMOP nears the close of its season, Boston lowbrow was treated to—in keeping with the “instrumental” theme of their programming this year—a concert of string music with the paronomastic title “Strings Attached.” Saturday night started with Stained Glass (2009), a brand new short and accessible piece by NEC grad student Nathan Ball—a smooth start to the night with its passages of shuddering violins and folky vibrato.
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) presented its third full concert of the season at Jordan Hall on Saturday night, March 6, exclusively featuring the strings in an extensive, fairly eclectic program of music for string orchestra. The program, tagged “Strings Attached” was the counterpart to BMOP’s prior concert in January featuring music exclusively for winds. The pieces performed included two monuments of the 20th-century canon, Bartók’s Divertimento and Babbitt’s Correspondences for string orchestra and synthesized tape.
William Thomas McKinley (Tom to his friends and family) is a protean personality, a composer of more than 300 works of great diversity, who embraces the classical and jazz worlds with equal proficiency and gusto. His is a restless, exploratory mind that ceaselessly seeks to expand the boundaries of musical form and substance without abandoning the essential building blocks of melody, rhythm, and harmony.
Back in 1996, conductor Gil Rose felt that “95 percent of what orchestras were playing had been written by people who’d been dead for more than 100 years.” Looking for a niche amid Boston’s crowded classical scene, he launched the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, devoted to contemporary music. More than 80 concerts later, BMOP has become the Hub’s most dynamic classical troupe. Its tag line: The Music Formerly Known as Classical. “We stole that from Prince, of course,” Rose says.
The American composer Elliott Schwartz (b. 1936) has carved out a niche in the postmodern movement through his synthesis of 20th-century idioms into a highly individual voice. A native New Yorker and a longtime professor at Bowdoin College in Maine, Schwartz has enjoyed no shortage of international performances, and he has been widely praised for his innovative use of juxtaposition, collage, theatrical gestures, and orchestral color.
R.A.P., the title work of Thomas McKinley’s newest CD, is a hugely entertaining romp for clarinet and orchestra, jazz orchestra actually, which combines the exciting improvisatory abandon of jazz with the motivic concentration and rhythmic sophistication of classical composition. Although I haven’t listened to progressive big bands in a while, I remember hearing music that veered off in similar non-traditional, rhythmic directions while still retaining a tenuous link to what we think of as jazz.
Elliott Schwartz’s music uses collage to a great degree. Juxtaposition can be stark, including the use of tonal against the non-tonal. Quotations may be present. He also uses “frame notation” extensively, a technique possibly most famously used by Lutosławski.
John Cage composed these short dances in 1951, to accompany choreography by Merce Cunningham. In fact, according to Cunningham, much of the movement and rhythmic impetus came first, to which Cage coordinated musical phrases drawn from a chart of 64 different sonorities.
Gil Rose is best known for his leadership of two high-profile Boston organizations, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), one of the major supporters of contemporary music in America, and Opera Boston, which specializes in musically outstanding performances of operatic masterpieces which have been neglected by the mainstream houses. I know I’ll be eternally grateful to him and Opera Boston for my first opportunity to see Weber’s Der Freischütz, universally regarded as a seminal work in the history of opera and a great one, but rarely performed today.
Sixteen Dances comes at a transitional time in Cage’s career. Completed in the beginning of 1951, it intimates the importance of chance in his works from then onwards, but still retains a fascination for serial procedures and precompositional planning: a remnant of his 1940s studies of Webern. The overall plan of the piece involves a constantly morphing 8×8 array, albeit one which Cage deployed freely and in a wide variety of permutations.
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.