The Harvard Crimson
Ian Chan
November 7, 2018

Oftentimes, music is perceived foremost as an exploration of harmony — how different sounds work mutually, usually conjunctly, and always carefully to create a pleasing, uncontroversial sound. Yet music is as much, if not more so, about its contrast as it is about its homogeneity: It explores the sonic relations between consonance and dissonance, between order and chaos, between sparseness and abundance. Indeed, “Time Release,” the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s (BMOP) first concert in their orchestral series, not only highlighted these dualities, but went further by juxtaposing the notion of musical contrast itself against homophonic unity.


The concert, which took place at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Oct. 19, featured four pieces by three very contemporary composers. Consisting of Howard Meltzer’s “Vision Machine,” Hannah Lash’s “Concerto No. 2 for Harp and Orchestra,” and Steven Mackey’s “Time Release” and “Tonic,” that night’s repertoire was all written in the past 15 years. And yet, between the works’ modern harmonic and orchestrational innovations are musical elements steeped in tradition: Fugal textures, neo-Romantic melodic developments, and Stravinsky-esque timbral humor are weaved organically through the music, exemplifying yet another duality that the performance sought to explore.

Based on French architect Jean Nouvel’s creation with the same name, Meltzer’s “Vision Machine” reflects several multi-faceted dualities and expresses them in a quasi-kaleidoscopic way. This manifests immediately from the first few chords. Pillars of consonance move smoothly and unassumingly through dissonant waters, unfolding into a vivid, colorful tapestry. This sonic balance and delicacy, crafted on stage by the orchestra’s conductor, Gil Rose, is reflected further as the full-bodied, bold staccati of the brass transition seamlessly into ethereal, artificial harmonics in the strings. Indeed, as the piece develops, the once-stable homophony becomes increasingly unsettling while ease and comfort underlie the typically-chaotic aleatoric sections. This conflation of orchestrational purposes — namely between structured, tangible forms and their unstable, near-immaterial counterparts — serves as a powerful musical allegory not only between the intangible “vision” and the real-bodied “machine,” but also between the abstractness of music and the permanence of architecture.

Meanwhile, Lash’s piece projects duality from a different lens. She pays particular attention to the relationship between soloist and orchestra — supposedly equal counterparts, in classic Baroque tradition. The harp part — performed by the composer herself — was immediately set apart from the rest of the orchestra, both timbrally and emotionally. Yet, it slowly coalesces: The orchestra’s still, sustained tones and the harp’s nostalgic, transient arpeggios merge poignantly into an exquisite oboe melody in the first movement. This unity crumbles as soon as it appears. By the second movement, a mellow, waltz-like texture is increasingly interrupted by a raucous orchestra until it disappears altogether.

It was the Mackey works, however, that embodied the notion of duality to the fullest. “Time Release,” a percussion concerto written for the night’s soloist, Colin Currie, opens immediately with rhythmic and orchestrational juxtaposition: Low, ominous string notes alternate and intertwine with eclectic but continually groovy percussion solos on cymbals and bongo drums. Tension developed through extended marimba cadenzas, taking on a rustic yet idiomatic character, eventually morph into a triumphant chorale in the brass, before returning to the dark tone of the movement’s opening. In this way, “Time Release” introduces the beautifully crafted musical ebb-and-flow that Mackey imbues in the rest of his work. For example, though the opening of the second movement features exceptionally sharp, striking transitions between large chord expanses and piercing brass notes, it mellows into a distinctive tune in the marimba supported by an orchestra that, for perhaps the first time in the piece, is fully united. The third movement, separated explicitly into two parts, literally demonstrates this duality: A self-described “smooth/bumpy” ride evolves into a majestic “Alleluia” that allows Currie’s stunning playing to soar above the orchestra.

“Tonic,” the final work on the program, takes a slightly different approach. It struggles its way from a series of dense, transient dissonances to the discovery of a true tonic key, in a journey that is at once trying and cathartic.

It is this catharsis — this development of tension that culminates in a controlled yet worthwhile release — that makes the thorough exploration of musical juxtaposition so invigorating. Through careful, artisanal treatment of multiple dimensions of contrast, the concert’s composers and musicians showed how vastly different musical entities can, ultimately, be brought together.