Scott Wheeler (b. 1952) has been a continual "point of reference" for new music in Boston for decades, as composer, conductor, teacher. He has an enviable (and enviably diverse) set of teachers, including Lewis Spratlan, Arthur Berger, Olivier Messiaen, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Virgil Thomson! His own baseline aesthetic is what one might call neoclassical, but as the above list of mentors suggests, it is not some sort of throwback to the 1940s. Rather, he has a taste for the focused, the economical, the pure and direct, and it emerges in a body of work that the French would call "scrupulous" (a very high compliment indeed). His most prominent profile is as a composer of vocal and dramatic music, but this release spotlights another side, the orchestral works.
The program opens with Crazy Weather (2004) for double string orchestra. The piece opens with a rush of energy, and its bright, brittle writing reminds me of a work I love, Charles Wuorinen's Grand Bamboula. Even when the music opens into slower or more expansive realms, it always projects a sense of being taut and wrought. City of Shadows (2007) is a single-movement work whose sections that suggest a mini-symphony. It's distinguished by its sense of multiple time-worlds coexisting, as in the brass chorales combined with skittering strings in the opening, or the following plaintive string lines against delicate percussive clicks. This work has the most evidently "new English" sound of the program - I realize it's a fun, albeit inadvertent, as of course it references Wheeler's home region, but I also mean that I hear gestures and harmonies that remind me of Maxwell Davies and his school. But the piece has a surging, relentless energy that frankly is quite American, and does sound the least bit derivative. And the way its storm clears for the last three minutes, leaving a vast space filled with delicate and disparate sounds, is magical.
The concluding work, Northern Lights (1987) is the earliest on the program -- and it's definitely the work of a younger man, brimming with a certain jazzy swagger. The first movement, with its repeated cymbal riffs, even suggests a whiff of Bernstein. The second movement grows more pensive and dark, opening with a "trilogue" between that insistent cymbal, orchestral hammer-strokes, and keening lines. This in turn finally erupts into more intensity and ecstasy, with harmonies and gestures that owe a bit to John Adams. The third movement seizes this line without pause, and pushes to a conclusion in music that is simultaneously breathless and surging, and also expansive (an apt description of Sibelius's music, and influence the composer acknowledges and a connection to the work's title).
This is music packed with ideas, yet it remains clear, and its transparent scoring allows different levels of activity to coexist and reinforce one another healthily. Wheeler shows that his dramatic instincts can successfully guide more "abstract" forms. he's a composer who takes every note seriously, but never loses his sense of play. The result is a bracing ride, delivering thrills and pleasures.
As usual, the BMOP performances by Rose and his band are exceptional.