David Wolman
January 1, 2011

The more new music I review, the more I am amazed by how much good music there actually is (yes, and bad). Lisa Bielawa has the phenomenal orchestral chops to warrant a two-CD set, including one full CD of music performed by the notable Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Bielawa’s ability to write for full orchestra alone is admirable, but this composer is gifted with much more than technical competency – and she’s accessible without being trite, fun without being light, serious without being dull. She also passes the “would I play it if I weren’t reviewing it” test and the even more difficult “would I go to a concert of her music” test, both with flying colors.

Roam (2001) begins with notes that appear, fade, and die with breathy sounds and glass harmonica-like glissandos followed by flute harmonics and more bending of pitches. Chimes punctuate the quilt of sound while the orchestra slowly advances like a storm. Bielawa waxes a little Brittenesque at times, creating a naturalist, neoromantic, mystical sound, but one that is all her own.

Bielawa’s Double Violin Concerto dates from 2008. The second movement features bell-like falsetto notes sung by one of the violinists, quite a feat for someone simultaneously playing her heart out, fiddling more notes per hour than your average NASCAR racer burns gallons per miles. The resulting vocal and string effects are beguiling. In the third movement, “Play Within a Play,” the music quiets down to a contemplative, sad, complex soup followed by a Shostakovichian driving rhythm juxtaposing the very tonal against the atonal. The violins in this piece are less solo instruments and more part of the ensemble, a kind of democratic musicality.

unfinish’d, sent (2000) begins with a piano and snare conversation followed by a breathtakingly lovely string interlude. The piece is based on Shakespeares line in Richard III, “unfinish’d, sent before my time into this breathing world.” There are falling, wailing, free voices bending and stretching tones, leading to a tribal-sounding orchestral interlude with timpani.

As if the preceding pieces were not enough, Bielawa provides us with In Medias Res, a concerto for orchestra that includes colors and the literary references of a faller literature major (which Bielawa is). It’s all very filmic, though you don’t need to see the picture to get the picture. Here, Bielawa seems to be the essential new breed of neoromantic (not academic) composer writing music meant to entertain as well as edify, but not to pander. She writes lyrical passages that are unapologetic, none of this gloomy, post-industrial stuff. She’s bright and optimistic, and the piece, like a jazzy half-time band, gallops to a big, brassy end.

Synopses 1-15 consists of solo pieces for orchestra members that are whimsical, suggestive, and colorful. Bielawa’s relationship with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project seems solid and affectionate; after all, she was its composer in residence for three seasons. Under the baton of Gil Rose, the BMOP glows here. I’m not surprised, since Boston is such a great music city and a nurturing home for new music. I’d be surprised if other orchestras around the country don’t program some of Bielawa’s music – she lends an extraordinarily prodigious voice to the repertoire. The recording, by the way, is exceptionally well done, with some of the best orchestral sound I’ve heard, all the more astounding given that the CD was recorded at several venues.

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