The Boston Modern Orchestra Project celebrated Irving Fine’s centennial at Jordan Hall Friday with performances of three of his works alongside pieces by Harold Shapero and Arthur Berger—two of Fine’s mid-20th-century “Third Boston School” colleagues. The event was part concert, part a collegiate bash for Brandeis University, and part family reunion. Eric Chasalow, the current Irving G. Fine Professor of Music at Brandeis, made some remarks and read a letter from the university’s president, Frederick Lawrence. Claudia Fine, the composer’s daughter, spoke briefly from the stage and sat in the audience with other family members. It looked like most of BMOP’s usual new music fan base stayed home for the night, suggesting something of a disconnect between the older tradition and today’s scene. But for those willing to listen back just 60 years, it was an interesting and satisfying experience.
Fine’s Symphony (1962) was the main draw and proved itself to be a sturdy orchestral work cast in a medium sized scale. The three movements all seemed to be leading up to the bracing final moments of steely dissonant chords. Frenetic passages were cast in kaleidoscope orchestration and there were only rare moments of reflection or spacious expanse. Yet Fine’s concision differentiates his work from the vaguely similar music of Copland, Barber, and Bernstein. The uninitiated listener might find the piece implacable, but would never mistake it for a symphony by somebody else. It suggests an original and still developing voice, making Fine’s untimely death seem like an even greater loss to the musical culture.
Opening the program was Blue Towers (1959), a fanfare overture best described as a glorified fight song for Brandeis (it originally premiered at the opening of a new athletic building). Fine’s ingenious orchestration was evident here too, and the piece was a reminder of a time when academic composers were more amenable to writing music with a social function within their community. It’s not deep stuff, but the piece had a pretty tune warmly rendered by BMOP’s principal trumpet, Terry Everson, and a chugging accompaniment reminiscent of Holst’s English band music.
The Diversions for Orchestra (1959) rounded out the selections from Fine’s orchestral catalog. It’s an endearing orchestral suite in four movements, of which Koko’s Lullaby is perhaps the most remarkable with its atmospheric harmonies and a pungent English horn solo (here performed by Laura Pardee Schaefer).
To those familiar with Fine, Diversions seemed the most representative of his work overall as it finds a middle ground between Blue Towers’ razzle-dazzle and the Symphony’s denser, more academic, style. It wasn’t surprising to learn that the suite is dedicated to Fine’s three daughters. It feels like a piece written not to bring a crowd to its feet, or to prove something to academic colleagues, but rather to send a message to family—unassuming and unselfconscious.
The string orchestra works by Shapero and Berger seemed less worthy of revival. Shapero’s Serenade in D mostly stayed within a gloomy sound world that quickly wore out its welcome. If one were to tune in for any given sixty second stretch, it would seem like a tolerable piece containing some interesting material. But in the large scale it’s cluelessly constructed with inexplicable transitions and no cogent development across five interminable movements. It was a slog to listen to, and probably also a slog to play.
Berger’s Prelude, Aria, and Waltz, was better—and certainly briefer. The latter two movements didn’t evoke their namesakes, but nonetheless had some charm. Most interestingly, the waltz seemed to draw from the gestural world of Johann Strauss II, while distancing itself from the strong pulse of the usual meter.
BMOP sounded splendid throughout the night under artistic director Gil Rose, who appeared to take a cautious approach with the baton, perhaps aware that some of these performances could be going on a disc. That album should be a worthy one, and Fine’s music is deserving of BMOP’s advocacy. But next time his work should be programmed alongside that of some of his other colleagues—maybe Copland, Foss, or Bernstein. He can hold his own with them.