New England composer Charles Fussell has specialized largely in symphonic and chamber music that features voices, and he writes for the voice comfortably and idiomatically. He has an authentic gift for text setting, and his vocal lines are unabashedly lyrical and expressive. Idiomatically, Fussell’s music is eclectic, incorporating folk song as easily as serial techniques. His Wilde, symphony for baritone and orchestra, was conceived as a sketch for an opera about the British author, with a text by Will Graham.
That rather gaudy sign in Jordan Hall reading “New England Conservatory” is intended to remind audiences of the institution where this acoustic jewel is located. Rarely is its presence so apt as during the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s annual “Boston ConNECtion” concert, recognizing the ongoing relationship between the ensemble and the school. The 11th such performance, on Saturday, was a typically substantial affair, dexterously played by the ensemble and conducted with authority by Gil Rose.
The best-of compilations that mark the end of each year can have the unfortunate side effect of relegating their contents to the past, treating them as relics that go into a shoebox in your closet marked “2008.” But if these are the best of what a year had to offer, they should be coming with us, getting played, heard, and talked about after the calendar flips. So here are some “bests” from the past year to take with you into 2009 and beyond.
Lee Hyla: Lives of the Saints/ At Suma Beach
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose - BMOP/sound
Charles Fussell (b. 1938) resume includes studies at Eastman with Bernard Rogers, in Berlin with Boris Blacher, a long stint as Virgil Thomson’s “assistant,” and a variety of posts in the Boston area (including the Boston University faculty). The two pieces in this collection are outgrowths of planned operatic projects, evidently not yet brought to fruition. High Bridge is meant to be a study for an opera based on the life of Hart Crane.
Appearing in the outer movements, Slyvan’s charisma enables Fussell’s Wilde to soar. The work sets selections from Wilde’s letters to Lord Alfred Douglas that reflect on the joys of fatherhood and his despondency after his trial and incarceration. Fussell folds in an artful Victorianesque tune, its temperament bending to suit the mood. The curtain raiser, High Bridge Prelude (alternately called High Bridge, Portrait of Hart Crane) is taken from a larger work commemorating Hart Crane.
As a grand ballet, Harbison’s immense Ulysses is something of an enigma and an anachronism: The composer fills 80 minutes absent a hope for choreography with a lissome program and vocabulary that recall music of a less dissonant era. There’s even an ondes Martenot—for Circe of course. We detect throughout sly touches and eloquence the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) handles with aplomb. BMOP appears to have assumed the mantle once held by the Louisville Orchestra, shepherding and recording a swath of modern, if not quite modernist, music.
Lukas Foss based his 53-minute cantata The Prairie on Carl Sandburg’s poem of the same name from his collection of Americana called The Cornhuskers. Written in the summers of 1941 and 1942, music from The Prairie first was heard in an orchestral suite played by the Boston Symphony directed by Serge Koussevitzky Oct. 15, 1943, and May 15, 1944, Robert Shaw led the cantata’s premiere in New York’s Town Hall.
The major classical recording labels, a few notable exceptions aside, seemed determined to continue their march toward irrelevance and oblivion this year. For independent outfits the prognosis was better: The budget-priced Naxos reigned supreme, while hardy concerns like Hyperion, Kairos, Testament and Bridge produced invaluable offerings. But some of the most robust activity in 2008 involved labels operated by those with the most to gain: musicians, orchestras, composers.
And from conductor Andrew Clark and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project comes The Prairie (1943) by Lukas Foss, using Carl Sandburg’s poem from The Cornhuskers. This ambitious cantata includes four excellent soloists—Elizabeth Weigle, Gigi Mitchell-Velasco, Frank Kelley and Aaron Engebreth—and another chorus new to me, the Providence Singers (of which Clark is artistic director), all of whom make Foss’s spacious landscape spring to life.
Though the Grammy Awards have never held quite the same cachet in classical music as they do in pop, they still carry a good deal of weight, especially for listeners seeking to navigate a bewildering array of new compositional voices and a thicket of recordings of standard repertoire. And this year’s nominations in classical categories, announced last week, include three with especially strong local connections.
A stellar disc of this epic work inaugurated the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's invaluable CD label.
The 2009 Grammy Award nominations were announced today and among them was Sanford Sylvan, baritone soloist featured in BMOP/sound's Charles Fussell: Wilde. Sylvan has been nominated for Best Classical Vocal Performance, making this his fourth Grammy Award nomination.
Just as the 2008 presidential election exposed and ultimately crossed gender, racial and generational barriers, many of the year’s notable recordings explored and wrestled with different kinds of boundaries — some musical, some cultural, and some almost unimaginable if not for the power of music.
Album: Gunther Schuller: Journey into Jazz
Song: Concertino for Jazz Quartet & Orchestra
Artist: Gil Rose
Composers of today’s Olympian jazz-classical concertos would do well to listen to these deceptively understated, coolly creative pieces that capture the zeitgeist of the 1960s. These three newly recorded 20-minute works (dubbed “Third Stream” by Gunther Schuller himself) explore and synthesize myriad interactions between a jazz combo improvising and a chamber orchestra reading a through-composed score with some big band gestures.
Nice. Charles Fussell has established his career in New England. He studied at Eastman with Thomas Canning and Bernard Rogers but has also worked with Boris Blacher and Virgil Thomson. His musical orientation is largely tonal (although structural elements of serialism hover at the edges), with no fear of dissonance.
The end of the CD era, we have long been told, is near. And it’s true that the onetime flood has narrowed to a flow, sometimes steady, sometimes faltering. But a few major labels and many small ones keep putting out many excellent recordings, as represented by the two dozen examples here, chosen by classical critics of The New York Times as records of the year.
Michael Gandolfi: Y2K Compliant
Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose
Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project present, more often than not, anthologized programming: one-night overviews of a single tradition, composer, or genre. Such concerts can veer toward stylistic diffusion, but Friday’s collection of string-instrument concertos presented the opposite danger - a surfeit of similarity.
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project performed new works in Jordan Hall on Friday evening by Martin Boykan, Robert Erickson, Elliott Schwartz, and Ken Ueno. The concert closed with Shoenberg’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, a very liberal arrangement of a Handel Concerto.
The Providence Singers continue their quest to bring forgotten choral works by American masters to the stage with a performance this weekend of Dominick Argento’s Jonah and the Whale, an eclectic concoction that blends fugues, hymns and sea chanteys with a text that spans many centuries. Performances at Blessed Sacrament Church on Academy Avenue are slated for tomorrow night and Sunday afternoon, as part of the ongoing FirstWorks Festival.
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project and director Gil Rose have cultivated a fascinating niche: aural snapshots of particular countries or national traditions. The past couple of seasons witnessed programs spotlighting France and Armenia; on Sunday, a concert sponsored by Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Judaica Division of the Harvard College Library celebrated Israel’s 60th anniversary.