"Sangita: The Spirit of India’’ was the title of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s season-ending concert Friday night at Jordan Hall. And the program was as dense as the hot, humid, subcontinent-like weather outside, with world premieres by three New England-based composers and a North American premiere by early-20th-century English composer John Foulds.
BMOP’s program notes defined “sangita’’ as a Sanskrit word denoting the three branches of music — vocal, instrumental, and dance — but it didn’t mean just a guest sitar and a raga-like modal melody or two. Although the three local composers — Bowdoin College professor Vineet Shende and MIT professors Peter Child and Evan Ziporyn — all wrote for some form of the usual Western orchestra, each had immersed himself in Indian culture and music, as was evident from the extensive program notes they provided and their participation in the pre-performance discussion hosted by composer and Boston Symphony Orchestra publications director Robert Kirzinger.
Shende drew on the part of the sacred Hindu text “Vishnu Purana’’ that describes the destruction and rebirth of the universe. Child adapted the melakarta scale system of South India and matched the eight movements of his piece to the “rasas,’’ or aesthetic emotions, of the ancient treatise “Natya Sastra.’’ And the three movements of Ziporyn’s tabla concerto, “Mumbai’’ (a meditation on the terrorist bombings of November 2008), took their names from the Hindu concept of Vedic cleansing fires. It was a heady experience for the small but intent audience.
Shende’s “Naimittika Pralaya’’ was written for string orchestra and prepared piano (“the traditional Indian prepared piano,’’ he joked during the discussion), with some retuning in the violins, violas, and cellos to suggest the open strings of a sitar. Not everything in the music evoked the description in the program, but you could hear Vishnu as the destroyer Rudra sucking the air out of the orchestra, leaving only the highest strings, and then Vishnu as the serpent Sesa scorching the earth in a blast of the piano, and then clouds drifting by, pulsing, sighing, with a couple of intense solos for principal cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer.
Ziporyn, who’s also a member of the Bang on a Can collective and the founder of Boston’s Gamelan Galak Tika, wrote his concerto for tabla master Sandeep Das, who played his instrument — two hand drums of contrasting size and timbre — with the prestidigitation of a virtuoso pianist, conjuring colors, seasons, and emotions in his pattering, pounding, and rhythmic pyrotechnics. The three movements were meant to represent “Household Fire’’ (beginning with two or three minutes of ghostly tuned bowls), “Sacrificial Fire’’ (the attacks depicted quietly, almost as a ritual sacrifice), and “Ceremonial Fire.’’ Using just strings to frame the tabla, Ziporyn fashioned the evening’s most effective integration of East and West.
After intermission, a full orchestra appeared for Child’s “Shanti,’’ which took the audience through wonder, compassion, fear, humor, valor, rage, love, and peace. Much of this was lucidly depicted: a chorale for wonder, scurrying flutes for fear, Prokofiev-like clarinets for humor, trumpet fanfares for valor, the celesta for peace before the troubled benediction. But the succession of heavy climaxes grew wearing.
The length of the evening — the concert had already exceeded two hours — prompted some audience members to leave before Foulds’s “Three Mantras,’’ which the composer completed in 1930. (He died of cholera in Calcutta in 1939.) “Action’’ was a march making heavy demands on timpani and snare drum and an understandably tired brass section. “Bliss’’ was leavened by celesta and the 10-woman Lorelei Ensemble singing from the balcony. “Will’’ gave us lots of tam-tam and a Shostakovich-like cacophony without that composer’s irony. Too much too late, perhaps, but welcome all the same.