I’ve been slow to post my thoughts on the second half of the “Voice of America” concert I heard last Friday, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t enthusiastic about it. Indeed, this was probably the most rewarding Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert I’ve yet heard. Although I confess I don’t often hear this group; to me, there’s sometimes a problem built right into their concerts - they’re funded by the composers being played. I don’t mean to criticize this as a way of getting new music out before the public, and to be honest, what I’ve heard at BMOP has always been highly accomplished. It just often falls into a certain academic mode (no surprise, as many of the composers are academics) that I’m not always that interested in. You know the (postmodern) drill - a vaguely Asian cast to the piece, exotic timbres and textures, an idiosyncratic, often fractured, structure, and high - sometimes wildly high - technical demands. This is all fine, of course, only it often lacks what “new” music should really be about: an original voice - something new.
But this time around, there was some new music at the end of the program that really sounded new - Goback Goback, by Andy Vores, which actually is only new-ish, as it was written in 2003. But then the opening pieces had been culled from works written as early as 1982, the year Ronald Perera composed Crossing the Meridian, a late-Britten-like meditation on alienated transcendence that often sparkled, but was perhaps a little too static for its own good, despite the able singing of Charles Blandy and the playing of a very cohesive ensemble. Something of the same sense of stasis hovered over John McDonald’s Speech Made by Music and Put These in Your Pipe, both of which were, again, highly accomplished, and somewhat self-consciously ecstatic and/or half-mad. Better was the charming, but slight, The Gold Standard, from Scott Wheeler, a discussion of economics by two sweetly befuddled Buddhist monks that went about where you’d expect it to. Here again, the instrumental ensemble - under the direction of Gil Rose - impressed, although the vocal balance was off: baritone David Kravitz all but overwhelmed tenor Blandy.
Kravitz was back, and in fuller voice than ever, for Goback Goback, which I should say partly impressed me because it introduced me to a writer I hadn’t known before - W.S. Graham (at left), a Scottish poet who has been slowly recalled from obscurity by passionate admirers such as the late Harold Pinter. And no wonder - judging from the verses set by Vores (from The Greenock Dialogues), Graham deserves a spot near Philip Larkin’s among modern poets writing in English. And Vores has somehow found the perfect “voice” to open up the poems - the rushing harmonic energy of minimalism, but applied to the pastoral English tradition. The results were often transporting, and were suffused with an intuitive connection to Graham’s text - a long series of meditations on the approach of death, viewed as if from a dream of mid-life. And Vores’s seemingly limitless gift for orchestration drew an astonishing number of moods from his ensemble - which he needed to match Graham’s constantly-morphing poetry, in which mind moves through and into landscape at will (“Gently disintegrate me/Said nothing at all,” goes one telling line). By the time Kravitz sang the final verse (which explains the odd title), I was wondering whether this wasn’t the best piece of new music I’d heard in these parts for some time. Probably.