Irving Fine — born in East Boston a century ago this December, an anniversary celebrated by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and conductor Gil Rose on Friday — was at the center of the Boston School of mid-20th-century classical composition. The Hub provided the name, but a web of cities gave the school its essence: Paris, the epicenter of neoclassicism, home of Nadia Boulanger, the school’s musical godmother; Lenox, where the group’s composers gathered at Tanglewood in its early years; Cambridge, and Harvard, where Fine, an alumnus, was a popular teacher before academic politics (and anti-Semitism) chased him away; and, finally, Waltham, where Fine built Brandeis University’s School of Creative Arts into prominence.
Brandeis and the Irving Fine Society were co-sponsors of Friday’s concert: Eric Chasalow, the current Irving G. Fine Professor at Brandeis, brought greetings from university president Frederick Lawrence; Fine’s daughter Claudia offered some commemorative remarks. The opener, Fine’s “Blue Towers,” grew out of a fight song he wrote for Brandeis, a task fulfilled with wistful insouciance, the charge laced with scholarly bemusement at the spectacle of college athletics. His “Diversions for Orchestra” — dedicated to Claudia and her sisters Emily and Joanna — was similarly light: four character pieces, orchestrated with a wealth of color, the sheer skill keeping the whimsy in balance.
Rose buttressed the program with string orchestra works by two of Fine’s closest colleagues. Harold Shapero’s Serenade in D was long and intricate, a Baroque suite filtered through an almost cubist sense of rhythm and phrase; the performance was skittish, with little of the swagger implied or required by the score’s sharper turns. Arthur Berger’s “Prelude, Aria, and Waltz” fared rather better, its sturdy elegance rendered with BMOP’s more characteristic proficiency.
The Shapero and the Berger — both originally dating from 1945 — typified the Boston School: 18th- and 19th-century comforts given crisp, Eames-style makeovers. They made the finale, Fine’s Symphony (1962), sound like a quantum leap. Incorporating serialist techniques that compressed and focused his rhetoric, Fine delivered a big, brawny masterpiece, one of the very best American symphonies. And the performance was terrific: the opening “Intrada” full of vibrant heft, the “Capriccio” all horsepower and torque, the weighty “Ode” dark and swirling, gathering thewy force.
The tragedy of the Symphony is that it was a culmination rather than a point of departure. Fine died a few months after its premiere — and only eight days after conducting the Symphony at Tanglewood — at the untimely age of 47. The piece became an unintended memorial, but an appropriate one, accomplished and restless at the same time: an exceptional craftsman pushing himself to the limit.