For its season-opening concert, “Virtuosity’s Velocity,” the Boston Modern Orchestra Project trained its sights on the chamber orchestra — an ensemble whose unique flexibility can incorporate the weight and timbral range of the orchestra and the responsiveness of chamber music. All the music was American, creating a sort of microhistory of the genre’s many iterations.
Saturday’s program was bookended by two works of John Adams: Chamber Symphony (1992) and its successor, Son of Chamber Symphony (2007). Gil Rose and his intrepid players opened with the later piece, which immediately settled into a funky, syncopated groove spiced with hints of big-band jazz in the brass. It kept up a simmering restlessness, even in the lyrical second movement, and in the finale the energy borders on recklessness.
A welcome change of pace was provided by Ross Lee Finney’s Landscapes Remembered (1971), a still, quiet work whose evocative power lies in its exquisitely graded colors. Its language balances tonality and atonality, and Finney makes beautiful use of glissandi, quarter tones, and other effects. Even its faster moments have a static sense.
Arthur Berger once described his Chamber Music for 13 Players (1956) as a work of “neoclassic 12-tone” music. Its first movement subjects a serial theme to a set of variations with a classical severity. The second movement is freer and more graceful, but as a whole the piece seems constricted and even bland.
More engaging was local composer Scott Wheeler’s 2007 City of Shadows, with its slightly noirish atmosphere. It embraces urban vitality, opening with quick figures in the bass of the piano and pizzicato strings. Languid melodies rise and fade amid sharp brass interjections. A nostalgic middle section, highlighting the winds, seems to grow organically back to full speed. A final, unsettling episode for strings brings this terrific and inventive piece to a close.
BMOP saved perhaps the best, and certainly the most difficult, music for the end. Adams’s chamber symphony came about as the composer was studying Arnold Schoenberg’s first chamber symphony while his son was watching cartoons nearby. This unholy union of Second Viennese School and Warner Bros. is relentlessly energetic, with contrapuntal lines moving at slingshot speed. This is zany, infectious, and altogether fun music. Rose and the orchestra brought it off with considerable panache and accuracy, as they did the rest of the program.