In his short creative life Irving Fine secured a reputation for both populist and serious music. His chamber and choral works remain in the standard repertoire, but his little-played orchestral music is remarkable and memorable for its personal charm and lyricism even when the composer employed the most dissonant of material.
The Irving Fine Society and Brandeis University presented a concert celebrating the composer’s centennial Friday night at Jordan Hall. Gil Rose led the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in three of Fine’s orchestral works along with music by his contemporaries Harold Shapero and Arthur Berger.
The three men, who all taught at Brandeis, belonged to the “Third Boston School,” a mid-century, Neoclassically-minded group of composers that wrote in a refined, clear-textured style. Even their twelve-tone compositions owe more to Stravinsky’s example than to Schoenberg’s aesthetic.
Fine’s Symphony is one such piece. Cast in three movements, the Symphony (1962), his final and most ambitious work, is suffused with bold orchestral colors, spiky dissonances, and nuggets of singing melody.
This is music of blazing difficulty and visceral excitement. Gil Rose commanded bold, brilliant playing from the orchestra to pull off the work’s agitated criss-crossing lines and offbeat rhythmic torque. The BMOP musicians delivered solid blocks of biting harmonies for the stark conclusion.
The concert opened with two works of lighter fair. Fine’s Blue Towers (1959), a short, jocular piece that references Brandeis’s school colors and campus landmark, Usen Castle, featured the BMOP orchestra in playing of sparkling clarity and vitality.
In the opening movement of Fine’s Diversions for Orchestra (1959), which followed, the thump and bump of BMOP’s basses gave gravity to the sprightly themes that danced overhead. In the third movement, a lullaby for Fine’s poodle, Koko, sweeping lines in the strings flowered from gentle sighing motives. The orchestra played with delicacy.
The second and fourth movements of Diversions deal with themes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The off-kilter, three-legged polka of the second captured, to good effect, a silly scene where flamingos are used as croquet mallets. The final movement is a gavotte for the Queen of Hearts, the rustic music rendered with a sense of regal pomp and power.
Harold Shapero’s death last year brought an end to the long line of American neoclassicists that began with Stravinsky and Nadia Boulanger. The five movements of his Serenade in D for Strings (1945), heard Friday night, make spacious use of diatonic harmonies. Its angular melodies and sharp syncopations are wrapped in a classical form and grace.
Yet this Coplandesque landscape bears a few surprises. The sweeping, aria-like lines in the second movement took on sudden, fitful bursts. In the Intermezzo chromatic strands of melody twist and turn through each section of the ensemble. The BMOP strings gave the bustling statements of this music a smooth, lyrical touch.
Copland once opined that Arthur Berger’s music “constitutes a valuable and personal contribution to American music.” Before he turned to serialism later in his career, Berger wrote music with sweeping textures and a grand sense of space.
His Prelude, Aria, and Waltz for string orchestra (1945) bears many of the qualities that defined Copland’s post-war “American” sound. The BMOP strings supplied the spacious harmonies of the opening Prelude with a shimmering tone. In the Waltz, softly played dissonances left their mark in the graceful texture like footsteps on soil.
Most affecting was the Aria, where melodies in the upper strings wafted over slow-moving harmonies. Rose wove a silky bed of sound. Solo violin and viola traded phrases with dark amber tone, and the BMOP strings answered with elegance.