Were music a liquid, the music performed in the “Monsters of Modernism” concert would be a steaming mug of black coffee. And don’t even think of asking for milk and sugar. Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s Jan. 29 concert, led by conductor Gil Rose, turned heads with its unconventional music. The composers were “uncompromising,” Rose said. “They wrote the music that they believed in,” regardless of what the popular norms were. Among the contemporary composers featured was Wellesley Music Professor Martin Brody. This was the world premiere of his composition Touching Bottom, a unique piece related from the point of view of Bottom, the human-turned-donkey from Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Brody greatly admired Mendelssohn’s overture from the ballet A Midsummer Night’s Dream and had thought about composing a piece inspired by its structure. Although Brody had less time to write than he would have wished while arts director at the American Academy in Rome, he kept a diary of compositional ideas. “I actually wrote the piece using that material,” he said. “In some ways, I found this a more satisfying way to work.”
As he set about writing the piece in recent months, Brody entertained numerous ideas of how to best emulate Mendelssohn’s overture while putting his own mark on the music. The relationship would be “a formal principle of some sort,” Brody mused. For instance, he contemplated writing a piece that used the same number of measures as the original overture.
However, as he thought of the imagery and characters from the play, it dawned on Brody that by looking through the eyes of Bottom, he could “refresh musical ideas and provide the right perspective” while preserving some of the enchantment found in Mendelssohn’s overture. Beginning with the resonant, deep tones of the brass, the piece began more darkly than seemed appropriate for such a boisterous character as Bottom, but Bottom’s character began to shine through as the piece progressed. Particularly striking was how Brody captured the element of fantasy in the array of percussion instruments used to portray the sounds and rustlings of an enchanted forest.
Some of the later pieces on the program were challenging to understand, especially without further study. For instance, Arthur Berger’s Septet was composed of extremely short, abrupt strings of discordant notes. Though not easy listening, the musicians’ precision and interpretation of the music were captivating. Other composers featured were Arthur Berger, George Rochberg, George Perle, Wayne Peterson and Milton Babbitt. Sadly, Brody and Rose informed the audience that Babbitt had passed away earlier that day.
The last piece of the evening, Peterson’s Transformations, seemed a fitting way to end the night. It was busy and lively from the first cue and each section had its say as the music flowed from the winds to the strings to percussion and led up to a crescendo in which the brass asserted themselves and the piece swelled with life, until finally dying out with a last pluck, barely audible, from the violins.
As the pieces have been doing since their conception, their performance sparked debate on how music ought to be written and interpreted. A trio of women from the audience remained in heated discussion as they walked down the chapel steps after the concert. One of the women marveled at how the same instruments that have been used for centuries could be manipulated in ways to elicit new, unique sounds. “It takes the former elements of order and pushes it into a new direction,” she said. Her friend did not agree. “You don’t come away singing it,” she expressed disappointedly. She felt that the music was intellectual, with a mathematical element to it, rather than melodic.
Regardless of what your musical cup of tea may be, one thing is certain and that is that the Boston Modern Orchestra Project gives an outstanding performance. Wellesley is privileged to have them as its Ensemble-in-Residence.
See the BMOP perform “Bang Theory” on Apr. 14 at Wellesley.