Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s 15th annual “Boston ConNECtion” concert at Jordan Hall on March 28th was, as you can adduce by reading BMInt’s interview with composer Donald Crockett here, is a bit of a stretch programmatically, as only two of the four composers whose works were presented (the two youngest, as it happened) have or had anything like a significant association with New England Conservatory, and only one of them currently resides in the area. That aside, the program, under the baton of Artistic Director Gil Rose, set up several other interesting contrasts: between two younger and two well-established composers; between two Asian-born and two American born; and between two works with roots in national histories and two of a more abstract foundation. In two more intramural contrasts, the two senior composers’ works reflected differing approaches to the “concerto for orchestra” format, while the two junior ones’ pieces offered ways of looking at and integrating historic events at degrees of removal from actual experience.
To start, BMOP premiered Binna Kim’s Accumulated Traces, the work that won the joint BMOP-NEC 2013-14 composition contest. An NEC graduate student, Kiim was born in South Korea in 1983, making her the youngest composer represented. Her work is dedicated to the victims of the Korean War, which of course took place more than thirty years before she was born, but whose murky, uneasy resolution has continued ever since to exert a powerful effect not only on Korean society, but on international relations. Kim related, in her program note contribution and from the stage before the concert, how she learned of this history largely from her grandmother, who suffered through it, and whose singing of a Korean folk tune seemed to embody the longing of a people torn in two for restoration of wholeness (rather like the eponymous protagonist of Calvino’s Cloven Viscount). This remembrance of a reminiscence is a short work for a huge orchestra; it begins with a great bang of tutti noise, with a flourish of percussion and microtonal downward portamento in the strings, definitely your “agony of war” feeling. The folk tune appears, brilliantly orchestrated as a solo on bowed vibraphone (kudos to Aaron Trant for the singing line), with lower strings and brass joining in. The working-out of these materials ran in the direction of large blocks of very loud dissonant chords—evocative in its way, we suppose, but not varied enough; the soft passages were too short, the sonorities too dense, and the direction by Rose, while attentive to pace, was not what you’d call subtle or geared to differentiate colors or whatever inner workings were there.
The first half of the program concluded with the first of the concerti for orchestra, Crockett’s Blue Earth (which he subtitles Sinfonia Concertante for Orchestra, titles and subtitles now being the reverse of what they used to be). This 2002 piece was written for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and, as Crockett explained, the commission steered him in a direction he would not have gone by himself: taking a subset of orchestral players, here the principal violin, cello, flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon, and timpani, and using them as sort of primi inter pares of the entire orchestra, rather than either a Baroque concertino or a Classical solo ensemble as in the traditional sinfonia concertante. So, a kind of synecdoche of a concerto for orchestra.
The five attached movements (representing a kind of hat-tip to Bartók’s concerto) are called “Homing,” like a migratory flock; “The Four Winds,” which is self-evident except for the punning reference to the four wind soloists who are featured in it; “Tomorrow the Sea,” which Crockett referred to as his La Mer; “Lament: The Blue Earth,” one of those “the grass was always greener” essays; and “To What Listens,” in which the composer struggles, but utterly fails, to disguise his fundamental optimism. The work opens with an ostinato-like figure for the solo cello (the peripatetic and always effective Rafael Popper-Keizer) as accompaniment to fluttering figures in the orchestra and chirping riffs for solo violin (concertmaster Katherine Winterstein being unhammily virtuosic). The music of the first movement displays a touch of American Stravinskyanism, with a big build in the brass. The second movement contains lovely sonorities, not only from the “official” soloists (Sarah Brady, flute; Jennifer Slowik, oboe; Jan Hallorson, clarinet; and Ronald Haroutunian, bassoon), but from the whole orchestra. The music is gentle and charming. Crockett’s version of La Mer reminded us less of Debussy than some of the more powerful elements in Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony; while it swells and ebbs to lovely effect, it’s probably a few minutes too long. The lament features an arioso passage, first in the violin to an ominous low string and timpani background (Craig McNutt the designated soloist here, displaying especially fine dynamic shading), then picked up by the viola (Joan Ellersick, not an “official” soloist, but Rose did acknowledge her in the bows), and cello. One might characterize this movement as having a sort of “lark descending” mood, with sighing portamentos sliding down by half-steps. The two-note rhythmic figure returned in the finale, this time in the winds and brass, though, as indicated above, the overall tone was much more affirmative. Overall, the work is attractive without great depth (the strangely dissonant ending seemed to us a miscalculation considering the general trajectory of the piece, and left the audience a bit confused as well), with less of the concertante than might have been expected. Rose’s stick was well deployed, and he kept everything together and moving forward, though as before there were places, especially in the third movement, where one wished for more clarity and prioritization of lines.
The second half began with probably the most original work on the program, Lei Liang’s Xiaoxiang, a concerto (really more like a tone poem) in one tripartite movement for alto saxophone, with Chien-Kwan Lin as soloist. Liang, born in Tianjin in northeastern China in 1972 (and who looks about ten years younger than he is), wrote it in 2003 as a saxophone-and-electronics piece and orchestrated it three years later (and further revised it in 2009). Its story is also one of historic wrongs perceived at two levels of remove: during the Cultural Revolution, a provincial man (in a village at the confluence of the Xiao and Xiang rivers, hence the name) is murdered by a local party official; the victim’s widow, having no formal redress, contrives to “haunt” the official by hiding behind his house and wailing like a ghost every night, until both she and the official are driven mad. The double-remove comes from the fact that this story became one that a friend and mentor of Liang’s took up; when the friend died, Liang chose to write this piece as a memorial. Thus, the significance of the story for Liang, whatever its intrinsic drama, was as the torch dropped by a dear friend. Having two of these history-of-a-history pieces on one program opens intriguing avenues to explore in how some art in our time seems to be removing itself from direct experience and struggling to find something genuine to say about it. Whether or not this type of art is displacing art that speaks from direct experience, there ought to be dissertations aplenty in contrasting the results.
Liang chose his instrumentation well for this venture: nothing in music wails like a saxophone. But he has taken this obvious point two steps further, first by understanding that in portraying someone whose means of communicating her grievance were formally and physically limited he would in fact need not to articulate for her but to convey inarticulateness itself; and second, in so doing, he employed the clever trick of writing the woman’s wailing for just the mouthpiece of the instrument. Thus, what Peter Schickele did as one of his PDQ Bach jokes, Liang did in total earnestness, and to great effect. Lin, as soloist, both on the mouthpiece and on the whole instrument, was, despite the premise, a most effective communicator. The work proceeds with the wailing, the saxophone echoed by the orchestral winds, accompanied by gruff chords. Occasional wisps of melody arise, but a lot of the burden of the piece is carried by colors and sonorities from the instruments, including frequent resort to extended techniques. The three sections of the work, marked “Slowly and Intensely,” “With Momentum,” and “Mysteriously,” flow together seamlessly, culminating in short sharp shocks in the percussion, the wail, and silence. In truth, we struggled to find formal coherence in the work, so just let it have its impassioned say. The performance by the orchestra showed no sign of weakness and, as noted, Lin was stellar.
The program concluded with the oldest work, Steven Stucky’s 1987 Concerto for Orchestra (which ought now properly to be called either Concerto No. 1 for Orchestra or Concerto for Orchestra No. 1—it’s a little hard to know which of those is right, since nobody else seems to have written more than one—inasmuch as his second concerto for orchestra won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005). Stucky’s conception of the format seems more closely aligned than Crockett’s with the models of Bartók, Hindemith, Lutosławski and Carter, so that the displays of virtuosity the piece calls for are those of sections rather than individual players. The three movements are marked in traditional ways as “Allegro,” “Adagio” and “Comodo,” with the first of these opening with bell-like coruscating fanfares immediately followed by quiet passages. This establishes a rondo-like feel to the movement (or, if you prefer, chorus-and-verse), which nevertheless moves through numerous unrelated incidents that yet have a strong sense of a journey’s progress, to a grand fermata in big octaves in the brass, where it abruptly stops. The slow movement is full of “purple mountain majesties” and hazy fields, harmonized in contemporary style but with an undeniable diatonic subtext: in his pre-concert remarks Stucky alluded to people’s finding in his music echoes of Copland’s “prairie” sound, but to us the nearer reference would be to Roy Harris. There’s even a charming English Horn passage, beautifully rendered by Laura Pardee Schaefer. The finale ostensibly picks up where the first movement left off, to bring all the threads together and give them a final destination. We found this to be the least satisfactory part of the work, as the materials seemed more rather than less diffuse than those of the opening movement, until something like the original fanfares return right at the end, an end that came up rather too abruptly. Again, Rose’s direction was concise and apparently accurate; there were moments in the finale where he dropped his baton arm, suggesting the presence of aleatory, or at least senza misura, passages. Basically, as one shamelessly comes to expect with a band as expert as this one, the performance was without blemish.