Friday night's concert of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project was all about the Greek debt.
Ours to them, that is. The program at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall, titled "Apollo's Fire," celebrated the continuing power of ancient mythology in Western thinking and art of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The works themselves were ancient, by BMOP standards. Instead of the wet-ink premieres and deuxièmes this orchestra specializes in, conductor Gil Rose served up such venerable fare as Nikos Skalkottas's Greek Dances (composed 1936), Elliott Carter's The Minotaur (1947), and Igor Stravinsky's Apollon musagète (1928).
The baby of the group was Lewis Spratlan's Apollo and Daphne Variations (1987). No BMOP concert is complete without at least one composer bounding onstage to acknowledge the applause, and Spratlan, now a spry 72, emerged from the audience at the very end to save BMOP from a composer-less evening.
But while it had a composer, the program got along without many other features of concerts these days. Soloists, chorus, actors, dancers, light show, multimedia—they all took the night off, leaving just Rose and his band to explore how 20th-century composers wrote for that old instrument, the orchestra.
The program's first half featured two composers who, though born just four years apart, seem to belong to entirely different eras. Skalkottas (1904-1949), a pupil of Schoenberg, found few listeners for his atonal compositions in Athens during his brief lifetime. Carter (born 1908), on the other hand, has stuck around long enough to receive general acclaim as one of this country’s most subtle and original musical minds, and his still-busy pen is making him as much a force in the new century as in the old.
As the spicy appetizer on Friday's program, Skalkottas's dances—a selection of five from a set of 36 he composed in the mid-1930s—evoked no mythological glories, but rather the Greece of today and yesterday. Composed soon after the gathering Nazi storm drove the composer from Berlin back to his native Athens, these dances were a rare (for him) excursion into folklore, setting authentic regional Greek tunes somewhat à la Bartók, with discreetly dissonant harmonies and a nostalgic mood overall.
The strings-only arrangement performed Friday heightened that nostalgia, and evoked trans-Balkan echoes of Enescu and his Romanian Rhapsodies. Rose conducted the syncopated fast dances with admirable snap, but allowed the ensemble to go a little out of focus during the most distinctive dance, a wistful Arkadikos in andante tempo for violas with pizzicato accompaniment.
In his ballet The Minotaur, Carter was composing (for just about the last time) under the neoclassical influence of his teacher Nadia Boulanger and Stravinsky. In spite of that, his predilection for dense orchestral textures was already in evidence.
On Friday, this musical tale of royal pomp, adventure, romance, and a bloodthirsty monster had orchestral color aplenty, most of it spread pretty thick, in a Russian-American mix of harsh brass and jittery strings. One wishes Rose had made more textural difference in the score's few moments of sonic relief–as when the pas de deux of Ariadne and Theseus is accompanied by instrumental solos and pizzicato–instead of just turning down the volume.
The choreography of George Balanchine has made Stravinsky's Apollon musagète (Apollo of the Muses) a ballet perennial, and this music offers many rewards in concert as well. The unusual (for Stravinsky) all-strings scoring imparts an emotional remoteness to go with the other Apollonian virtues of clarity and proportion. Within that restricted palette, however, Rose and his players found many nuances of color and mood.
Concertmaster Charles Dimmick's long violin cadenza (and his subsequent duet with Megumi Stohs) lent distinction to the muse Calliope's variation. By contrast, the next dance, Polyhymnia's variation, grew so lush in string sound as to almost become expressive. Stravinsky (and Rose) rescued the situation, however, with a saucy scamper for Terpsichore, the muse of dance. And the climactic pas de deux of Apollo and Terpsichore demonstrated how much latent emotion a very attenuated orchestral texture can hold.
Still, after so much cool, gray music and emotional restraint, Spratlan's fiery variations came as a relief. Although it was inspired by an episode involving Apollo—the god pursues the nymph Daphne, who turns herself into a tree to escape his advances—the piece is anything but Apollonian in character.
In fact, impulsiveness and a Romantic sensibility pervade it, starting with the theme, a graceful valse triste for piano solo that sounds like it escaped from Schumann's Carnaval. (Linda Osborn-Blaschke rendered the little tune, at the top of the piece and once again at the close, with just the right feeling of long ago and far away.)
The ten variations were a feast of orchestral colors, expertly served by Rose and the players, from massed brass tone clusters to delicate, pointillistic writing for strings, from orchestral sections in conflict to individual solos. God and nymph, aggression and elusiveness, were contrasted, then brought together in a double fugue.
The piece ended satisfyingly with a frantic pursuit, the arboreal climax (don't ask), and the god's regret at what might have been. The audience seemed to have no regrets at all, and told the composer so.