Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project is, arguably, the source for new and lesser known modern music, especially that of American composers. Their catalogue includes Grammy-winning releases and a vast array of very interesting works that are, indeed, typically premieres or lesser known. This release of music by Martin Boykan is another great find!
I am only casually acquainted with Boykan and his music. I have heard some of his chamber music before and recall finding it attractive. Boykan is a very experienced and well trained teacher and composer, having at one point in his long career studied with Piston, Copland and Hindemith (that’s a nice list.) His music sounds a bit more German and formal than the overtly emotional style of Copland, for example, but is very well written and quite interesting.
The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra was written for the present performers, premiered in 2008. It is written in a fairly standard three movement sonata-allegro form but is filled with an energy and attractiveness. The opening movement, “Andante,” does have some similarities to Schoenberg or Berg (I agree with the booklet notes by Andrew Mead) and is filled with long, high, technical passages that give the soloist, Curtis Macomber, plenty to do. The middle, “L’istesso tempo,” moves gradually and mysteriously but is characterized by some wonderful effects such as some col legno in the lower strings and the use of an extended percussion battery, including vibraphone and suspended cymbals. The closing “Allegro giocoso” is everything we expect in giocoso; written as a buoyant march and ending in a rising, dramatic burst from the violin and a descending crash from the orchestra. Curtis Macomber and the BMOP play with verve and this Concerto leaves a strong impression.
Boykan’s Symphony for Orchestra, which predates the Concerto by nearly twenty years (1989), is a fascinating work. In many ways, Boykan also admits, this work is a fairly traditional four-movement symphony but with a harmonic vocabulary that speaks to Berg or Schoenberg; much more so than in the Concerto. The confluence of a structural form – including the use of a solo vocalist – that is fairly traditional but with a swirling, nebulous harmonic center is a bit unusual and is somewhat reminiscent of Mahler. For me, the first two movements of this Symphony are interesting and do hold the interest, but it is the second half that provide the most payoff. The fairly brief “Adagio” opens with broad chord that pronounces, subsides and then provides the material to long line, poignant melodies. The mood is generally sad or at least ponderous and it reminded me, peripherally, of the Adagio in the Mahler ninth.
The most fascinating aspect of this piece is the closing “Keats Sonnet”, which is essentially a song/lied for baritone and orchestra. In this case, the Keats sonnet is his “To Sleep”, one of his most existential and restless musings on the metaphor of death as sleep. The tone is appropriately troubling but beautiful. The movement conjured up moments of Berg’s Seven Early Songs to me and soloist Sanford Sylvan performs, once again, brilliantly! (Sylvan is an active performer of contemporary vocal and operatic literature and may be known best for his many involvements in the music of John Adams.)
Martin Boykan is, clearly, a gifted and interesting composer and this recording gives us a great introduction to his music. His is the sort of music that may not be an immediate “hit” to all listeners but it is compelling and engaging and all should be able to listen to with great interest. Kudos, again, to BMOP for bringing more intriguing works to our attention.