Samuel Barber (near left, with his lover Gian Carlo Menotti) once described himself as “a living dead composer,” and indeed, for most his life his commitment to romantic feeling in the modern age consigned him to the dustbin of critical opinion. But history has a way of upending that dustbin, and Barber’s gift for lyrical simplicity, cemented in the popular mind by his Adagio for Strings, has enabled him to outlast his detractors.
The conductor Gil Rose, after curating last year’s Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music, is admirably keeping alive the vision of a local new-music festival in late September. This year’s iteration, entitled “Voice of America,” is underway at Tufts University’s Granoff Music Center. It does not have the Ditson Fund’s generous backing so it paints on a necessarily smaller canvas, but last night’s opening performances made clear that it should be a richly rewarding weekend of American vocal music.
This evening’s double concert in the Distler Performance Hall of Tufts’ Granoff Music Center began a 3-day festival involving a partnership between the Florestan Recital Project and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project to highlight American vocal music. The former’s presentation was the 1st of 3 concerts which together would span the entire vocal opus of Samuel Barber, aptly titled, “BarberFest,” while the latter highlights contemporary compositions for vocalist(s) and chamber orchestra.
September is usually the quietest month of the year for local classical music, with the summer activity largely vanished and the fall tumult yet to descend. Last year was an exception, with the Alice M. Ditson Fund throwing a big new-music party for most of the established local ensembles over four days at the Institute of Contemporary Art. As groups collaborated and programmed on a broader canvas, the festival energized the local scene, and many musical insiders hoped it could become a fall tradition.
This is an important album – to the uninitiated, it may seem strange, but stay with it, there’s a payoff at the end. Louis Andriessen is no stranger to adventurous listeners: he’s been a fixture of the avant garde for over forty years. This album begins with a carillonesque instrumental and then a series of art songs, all but one based on poems by legendary, mad Italian poet Dino Campana. Campana spent much of his life institutionalized, including his final years: his surreal, twisted, horrific imagery and sense of anguish compare with Baudelaire at his most crazed.
Full Moon in March (1977) is John Harbison’s adaptation of a nasty Yeats “chamber play” dealing with the beheading of a filthy Swineherd (James Maddalena) who dares to court a bitchy virgin Queen (Lorraine DiSimone). His head winds up impaled on a stake, and the Queen does a hysterical dance (soprano DiSimone is replaced by a dancer). The piece is a small-scale but demonstrative Salome substitute set in Harbison’s pungent 70s Princetonian-Stravinskian style, his scoring embroidered with colorful prepared piano sonorities in the small accompanying ensemble.
Presented by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) in partnership with the Florestan Recital Project and Tufts University Department of Music, the Voice of America Festival will showcase a series of American vocal works, both new and unknown to Boston audiences, and bring an unprecedented diversity of American vocal music to Tufts University.
This new recording from Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project of music by Louis Andriessen carries a catalogue of disappointing turns and insipid organizational processes of otherwise promising musical events. The players themselves certainly deserve no rebuke. It is a sound, engaging, and artful execution that because of the clarity and precision of an accomplished performance, cannot help exposing some of the shortcomings in the writing itself.
The news sounds like a broken record: No one is buying CDs. Au contraire. Those who appreciate contemporary classical music are spending their money on new recordings, released by several independent labels. And, the dedicated owners of these CD indies are inundated with submissions from composers and performers.
Music writer Joseph Dalton surveys the contemporary classical music scene in an online piece.
Neva Pilgrim, a co-founder of the Society for New Music, took time from her busy schedule assisting with Cazenovia Counterpoint to comment on the article. Here’s what she had to say:
Meanwhile the city’s other homegrown label, BMOP/sound, continues to impress. This scrappy in-house operation run by conductor Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project was launched early last year, and it has released a steady stream of impeccably produced, beautifully packaged discs with exacting and engaged performances of 20th- and 21st-century music. Several elegantly probing pieces by Brandeis-based composer David Rakowski were recently featured on a BMOP/sound disc called Winged Contraption, including his Piano Concerto in a strong performance by Marilyn Nonken.
“I am distressed about my CD sales, which have completely tanked. I talked to the head of my label about this, and he told me, ‘No one’s buying CDs.’ In effect, he said, ‘What makes you think you’re special?’ Everybody’s collapsing.”
- composer John Adams, Newsweek, February 5, 2009
“The recording industry is kaput.”
- violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Times Union (Albany, NY), February 8, 2007
Lukas Foss died aged 86 on 1 February 2009. His legacy as a composer is considerable and varied, and there were few areas of American musical life from the 1950s to the 1980s that did not feel his influence in some way. His important musical directorships, firstly at Buffalo and then at Brooklyn, Jerusalem, and Milwaukee, brought his controversial musical ideology into conflict with some of his audiences, performers and managers.
It remains a mystery why certain labels send their CDs to us. Like for instance BMOP/sound. It is a difficult job to cover these two of their new releases. They fall beyond the scope we usually cover. So I will be very descriptive only on these two. But first the label itself. It is the outlet of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. They perceive it as their mission to record important classical compositions of the 20th and 21st century. These two releases may illustrate this.
Born in Vermont in 1958, David Rakowski is best known for his long series of witty, extravagant piano etudes. They have been often performed, and recordings of them have been praised by ARG’s reviewers: Bridge 9121 (July/Aug 2003), Albany 681 (Jan/Feb 2005), Bridge 9157 (Mar/Apr 2005). Rakowski has written much else, too, including three symphonies, five concertos, wind ensemble pieces, and chamber and vocal music.
John Harbison’s music is almost always engaging on an intellectual level—imaginative, ingeniously inventive, and distinctively orchestrated—but in spite of its essentially lyrical impulse, it can have a cold brilliance that doesn’t leap out to touch the emotions. The three works recorded here, written in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, appeal as much to the senses as to the intellect, making this one of the most attractive releases of the composer’s music.
You might say that Derek Bermel (b. 1967) is the quintessential 21st-century musician. A composition student of Henri Dutilleux, Louis Andriessen, and William Bolcom (among others), Bermel is also an accomplished jazz clarinetist, has traveled the world exploring folk traditions, and performs (singing and playing keyboards and percussion) in a rock band. This staggering eclecticism is apparent in all four works recorded here.
This recording from Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project includes two of John Harbison’s prominent vocal works, the Mirabai Songs and his opera, Full Moon in March. The former is based on a text by a 16th-century Indian mystical poet and street-dancer, while the latter is loosely adapted by the composer from a play by William Butler Yeats. The last piece on this recording is an elegiac tribute to Calvin Simmons, a young conductor of the Oakland Symphony who died in a boating accident.
The American clarinetist and composer Derek Bermel is gaining increasing prominence as a postmodern force. His philosophy involves recreating the sounds of world music, jazz, rock, and funk in traditional instrumental genres, especially the symphony orchestra. This artistic viewpoint, of course, is hardly new; Mozart invoked the sounds of Turkish music, Debussy conjured the timbres of the Indonesian gamelan orchestra, and Bernstein was at home with jazz, Latin music, and the Western European canon.
In a world of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach, it’s not easy for modern composers to attract listeners. It’s also often highly challenging for musicians to prepare, play, and record works by contemporary composers. Thanks to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), both composers and musicians have an opportunity to share their music with the masses.
Some have said that symphony orchestras are becoming museums. Perhaps that is true, but in Boston, exciting things are happening.
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is a relatively new ensemble devoted to the performance of new music. While that term seems to scare a lot of people, the music it offers is quite accessible and is likely to become part of the standard repertoire.