With a thoughtful and absorbing tribute bringing four works by “American Masters,” the Boston Modern Orchestra Project opened its season at Jordan Hall on Saturday night. Founder and director Gil Rose celebrates the 20th year of this very active orchestra this year. The concert especially excited me for two reasons: seldom-heard orchestral works by four Americans, and a gesture in memory of Steven Stucky, who died unexpectedly earlier this year. Robert Kirzinger of the BSO gave an able and helpful talk about the music before the concert began.
The opener, The Schubert Birds by Michael Colgrass was composed in 1989. Colgrass, a native of Illinois but resident in Canada, came to national attention as a percussionist with the New York Philharmonic and as the composer of As Quiet As, which the Boston Symphony recorded with Erich Leinsdorf. The dreamy, impressionist composition is constructed around a familiar G major sonatina attributed to Beethoven (Supplement 5 in the Kinsky-Halm Catalog) but of doubtful authenticity. I mention this because The Schubert Birds is hung upon another probably spurious work, Supplement I-17 in the Deutsch Catalog, known as the Kupelwieser Wälzer, 32 bars in G-flat major written down by Richard Strauss when he heard a private performance with the Kupelwieser family in 1943. Like any of Schuberts waltzes, this is a lovely whether he wrote it or not. It is stated more or less in full near the end of the Colgrass, which the composer’s notes describe as “a tapestry of several dozen variations.” Much of what one heard wove a dependable tapestry of atonal shrieks (I thought immediately of the terrifying three piccolos in the Golden Calf scene in Moses und Aron), mostly string harmonics and woodwinds, over a slow-moving background of warm triads in the full brass, often in call-and-response fashion. After about 12 minutes this kind of stichomythy grew tiresome; the bird-call chorus in The Rite of Spring prelude, after all, lasts only a minute. Colgrass’s imagination gave us some fine solo writing, and some vivid color, with a memorable duet between oboe and contrabassoon and a striking melody for violins, violas, and cellos in unison fortissimo, without octaves. The waltz itself fades away near the end with four solo contrabasses playing very high on their G strings, a remarkable sound that kept in tune only with difficulty. A widely-spaced, luminous string chord at the very end supported a touching gesture of flute and piccolo.
Not many musicians today remember Gail Kubik (1914-1984), who worked extensively as a film composer, but his Symphony Concertante won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952, and this was the piece that BMOP triumphantly revived. An Eastman-trained composer, Kubik studied also with Boulanger and Piston, and Parisian neoclassicism certainly appeared in this brisk and gratifying work; I say “Parisian” because the aesthetic kinship seems to be more with the regular dance-like pulses of Milhaud and Poulenc than with the mixed meters and contrapuntal intricacy of Stravinsky. The unusual concertante comprised piano (Vivian Choi), viola (Jing Peng), and trumpet (Terry Everson, who used two different trumpets with four different kinds of mutes). These three instruments engaged in soli, duets, and a trio that played alone for a long, expressive stretch in the second movement, or regularly challenged the orchestra in a lively dialogue in the other two movements, often with a rhythmic back-and-forth that was fun to follow even when the ensemble came dangerously close to sidedslipping. Harmonically complex but well-centered tonally, the piece shows Kubik’s fondness for fifths in bell-like sonorities (Bartók liked these sounds too). I especially admired the staccato toccata-like writing of the third movement, and in the slow movement the prolonged B-flat in the piano’s repeated notes, an effective middle-register pedal-point that pursued the trumpet and viola while building to a fine climax.
Some of the same kind of mechanistic neoclassicism penetrates Harold Shapero’s Partita in C for piano and orchestra, in which Vivian Choi shone once again. The eight movements of this work are all short and continuous, separated only by brief cadenza-like connectors for solo strings. The classical ancestors are Bach and Handel, with their dotted rhythms and repeated notes and patterns (Stravinsky honored the same things in his Piano Concerto), and their well-grounded pulsed bass lines. There was a different instrumental makeup for each of the movements: a creepy sound of string octaves with snare drum in the opening Sinfonia; a hard-to-follow twelve-tone line in the Ciaconna (if there was a triple meter here I couldn’t make it out; but I did remember that Shapero had written a jazz version of Monteverdi’s famous ciaconna Zefiro torna, called “On Green Mountain”); a Pastorale with oboe, clarinet, harp and triangle; a Scherzo with xylophone; and an Aria with vibraphone, harp, bassoon and English horn; a Burlesca with piano and tambourine (!) that commanded special attention with an unearthly sound of muted trombone and ponticello violas; a Cadenza that repeated the opening tutti octaves of the Sinfonia; and a final Esercizio, a vigorous toccata with a cat-and-mouse dialogue. Like the Kubik rediscovery, this work by Boston’s own “Sonny” Shapero, who died just three years ago, is a genuine delight and should appeal to many audiences.
I am sorry that I never met Steven Stucky, although a decade ago I did see him conduct someone else’s music. His Chamber Concerto premiered only six years ago, and it still sounds young and fresh. An abundance of expressive melody wanders through the highs and lows of orchestral sound, featuring rich differences of instrumental soli. The beginning, with widely-spaced polychordal fifths in string harmonics and vibraphone, evokes a daybreak scene. A rhythmically well-marked faster section follows with staccato woodwinds in parallel thirds; it yields to a slower section with expressive clarinet, solo violin, and solo cello, eventually much-divided strings playing soft trills with solo flute and bisbigliando harp. Around the middle of the work, a rising four-note melodic cell emerges, fifth-semitone-fifth, like C, G, A-flat, E-flat, which is answered by its downward retrograde, and this dominates the remainder of the concerto, somewhat too insistently. Overall, the radiant orchestral sound and color most impressed in this formally adventurous concerto. Like program partners, it seemed pleasurable to play, even though a strenuous workout as well.
All of the soloists earned high marks for professional confidence and fearlessness; Gil Rose conducted with his customary alertness and precision. One hopes and assumes that they will record these pieces as part of their ongoing series of American masters; the concert sternly reminded us we neglect much of our best music, as much of it can convey valuable revelations.
(Full disclosure: I have ever been a member of BMOP’s figurehead Advisory Board.)