We don't tend to think much about the "classical" in classical music, the art form's links to ancient Greek culture. But as Robert Kirzinger reminded listeners in a program essay for Friday's Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert in Jordan Hall, the phrase classical music itself — while today almost meaningless in its catch-all nature — still acknowledges its implicit debt to more ancient pasts.
And the myths of classical antiquity retained their purchase on the progressive 20th-century musical imagination, too, as Friday's program seemed intent on demonstrating through works by Carter, Stravinsky, and Lewis Spratlan. Artistic director Gil Rose was on the podium for this ambitious final concert of the BMOP season.
So ambitious in fact that the program might have felt complete even without its curtain-raiser, Nikos Skalkottas's "Five Greek Dances" of 1936, the evening's sole work without an overtly mythological connection. There is certainly zest and interest in these versions of regional Greek dance forms, but on Friday the music seemed somewhat adrift in the no-man's-land between the open-hearted rustic energy that surely first fired these dances, and the more pasteurized sounds of a folk world dressed up in tails for the concert hall. A more decisive and sharply drawn performance might have helped.
But this concert's main offering was clearly its three sprawling mythologically tinged scores, beginning with Carter's ballet "The Minotaur," commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein and premiered in 1947. As with many composers, the breaks between Carter's stylistic periods are not always as stark as they might seem, and while "The Minotaur" predates the ultramodernist Carter of the 1950s and beyond, the sharp edges and moments of sonic violence in this vivid music make it feel worlds away from the comparatively welcoming populism of, say, Carter's "Holiday Overture," written just three years earlier. Rose and BMOP gave the ballet an accomplished reading, and you could sense the forward current bearing Carter onward toward the composer he would become.
Next up came "Apollon Musagète," Stravinsky's landmark ballet score premiered in 1928, in which the composer harnessed the power of older mythic archetypes while artfully sidestepping the Romantic baggage of the 19th century. Unlike much of BMOP's repertoire, "Apollo" requires no special pleading. Friday's performance brought across much of this music's pointed elegance and poise, its pellucid grace and modern sheen.
And the evening's culmination came by way of Spratlan's delightful "Apollo and Daphne Variations," written in 1987 but rarely performed. All the twists and turns of Apollo's pursuit of Daphne and her transformation into a laurel tree are rendered in this sweeping pictorial score, but the music is bracing and rich enough to stand free of its narrative, beginning with an arresting opening of mysterious whispering strings and dark brass lines suggestive of lost ancient rites. As the music progresses, Spratlan tosses many styles into the blender, from Schumannesque piano writing to vaguely avant-gardish orchestral techniques, but somehow binds it all together with wit and theatrical flair. Rose and company saved the evening's best playing for last. It was good news to read that this score is due out as part of a future all-Spratlan release on the orchestra's distinguished house label, BMOP/sound.