On Friday, May 18, The Boston Modern Orchestra Project gave its Jordan Hall audience a theme-based concert, four 20th-century works works, tied by our understanding of Apollo as "Apollon Musagè," from his role as leader of the muses. One of the muses is, of course, Terpsichore, and this is the muse underpinning the first set of pieces, 5 Greek Dances by the Greek composer, Nikos Skalkottas. Although Skalkottas studied with Schoenberg, and wrote a large number of atonal and 12-tone pieces, the pieces that he was known for in Athens were his more accessible pieces, 36 Greek Dances. BMOP played 5 Greek Dances (1936): Epirotikos, Kretikos, Tsamikos, Arkadikos, and Kleftikos. These pieces had a limited range, using folk music in a formalized way, similar to Brahms's Hungarian Dances. The dances used Greek melodies, alternating frequently between major and minor keys. The second dance, Kretikos, built over a bass ostinato, was spritely, with echoes of Copland and Ravel. The third dance, Tsamikos, was leisurely and romantic, with a tonal range reminiscent of Kabalevsky. The fourth dance, Arkadikos, showed off BMOP's resonant hall-filling sound, but the melody had an unfinished, awkward quality. The final dance had an energetic, pops-like quality. These rarely-heard pieces were pleasant, and showed off BMOP's warmth and potential for romantic performance, but were, in themselves, not particularly memorable.
Next was a more ambitious work, The Minotaur (1947), by Elliot Carter. It's described as his "most Stravinskian piece" in the program notes. It was meant for Balanchine (who was Stravinsky's collaborator on the companion Apollo piece later in the concert). Unfortunately, Balanchine was off to Paris at the time, so the plan. There are two scenes in this ballet -- one at King Minos's palace in which Queen Pasiphae engages in a tryst with a sacred bull, and a second, in which a labyrinth is built to imprison the Minotaur, which is killed by Theseus with the help of Ariadne. BMOP's performance has really wonderful drive, and a sense of narrative purpose. There are big announcements in the horns, and a really captivating 3-against-2 section. Delicate, small forces contrast percussion and brass. At times you can feel the breath of Stravinsky, with Rite-of-Spring-like passages, with repeated phrases, each time having a different accompaniment. There are poignant sections where a clarinet and oboe hover over the strings, contrapuntal episodes. Later, in the labyrinth, an ominous-sounding clarinet stands for the unwinding of the string. Always, there is a feeling of a story being told, moving inexorably. A rousing climax falls to a quiet finale. The entire performance is handled with clarity, energy, and a nearly literary quality.
The third piece of the evening is Stravinsky's incidental music to the ballet, Apollons Musagète. Unfortunately, in weight, tonality, and general musical content, this piece felt similar to the Carter piece, both using a similar musical language. I wish BMOP had played something more contrastive, like Lewis Spratlan's Apollo and Daphne Variations that ended the evening.
Spratlan's piece is really quite remarkable, rich and varied. Spratlan uses thin, high strings over a solid bass, builds primordially, like a Lewis Andriessen piece, using some of the same endlessly-rolling scales that Georg Friedrich Haas used in In Vain. Then begin the wonderful Robert Schumann-like theme and variations, initially played on the piano. Throughout the piece, this theme is used in a romantic, non-ironic way, but Spratlan is never far from comedic, and the theme does have comical variations, with large massed sounds and percussion, including triangles. There is a section with roiling scales, and frighteningly threatening horns, but quieter sections with big major chords over long sostenuto parts. He does have a section which reminded me of his earlier piece When Crows Gather, but then with haunting interjections of horn and strings. Then comes a coda-like section, reminiscent of something you might expect from Frederic Rzewski, with vigorous, rhythmic strings. He then returns to the original theme. This is an emotionally complex, interesting piece, restless, but structured, and Gil Rose and the orchestra delivered it authoritatively. Rose's handling of brass is often breathtaking.
Occasionally, I wish the string sections generated more emotional content. Still, the Apollo and Daphne Variations was the piece that made the concert for me. Skalkottas' 5 Greek Dances were friendly, accessible, and quirky, but not memorable; the Carter piece was performed flawlessly, interesting because of its Stravinsky-like manner, and as an example of his neo-classical mode, but lacking in Carter's more personal voice of the fifties and onward; the Stravinsky ballet seemed pale compared to, say The Rite of Spring or The Firebird. All of this is to say something I've occasionally felt before at BMOP concerts -- that the concert selection can be less exciting than the orchestra itself, and certainly, a theme-based concert like this one always has risks. If you don't know Spratlan's music, this was certainly a good introduction. It didn't hurt that the composer was in the audience, to take a number of bows. And it was a fine way to end the 2012 BMOP season.