A couple of weeks ago, conductor Gil Rose was sitting in a local Indian restaurant, looking improbably relaxed. As music director of Opera Boston, he had the opening night of Osvaldo Golijov’s flamenco opera Ainadamar looming over his head, and as founder of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, he had four daunting contemporary scores waiting to be whipped into shape for a concert that takes place this Friday night at Jordan Hall.
But at the moment, the only thing that seemed to exist was the bowl of creamy rice pudding in front of him, and the memories of his early days in Boston, when he slipped into town unnoticed in the mid-1990s. “I didn’t have any network of musical colleagues,” he said. “I was just sort of deposited into a city with a very particular musical and hierarchical structure. You were in this camp or that camp. It’s worked this way for the last 30 years. You didn’t come on the Mayflower. This is Boston.”
Rose might easily have joined the ranks of embittered musicians seeking other lines of work, but instead he had the vision to start an orchestra - though not of the typical variety. As he saw it, too much of the classical music world had become an empty cult of virtuosity, a museum culture enshrining the past and content to endlessly cycle through the same small body of works. Rose read the erudite music histories of Joseph Horowitz and was impressed by the author’s diagnosis: Things had gone wrong, Horowitz argued, in part because performers had been placed above the living creators of the music. “I thought, well, what would happen if it were the other way around? What would that look like?”
It might look a bit like BMOP, and it might prove to be transformative. Rose founded the orchestra some 10 years ago as a group bent on presenting contemporary classical music in all of its staggering variety, as a kind of fresh, quivering, vital experience, in dialogue with contemporary culture. He began cold-calling composers, commissioning works, recording albums, and building up a core roster of top-notch local freelance players.
Ten years and 42 world premieres later, BMOP is emerging as the national leader among orchestras of its ilk. The structure has stayed lean with a budget hovering at $1.1 million. With that money, the group typically performs four annual concerts at Jordan Hall; it runs an offbeat new-music cabaret at a local club, curated by composer-in-residence Lisa Bielawa; and in January it will launch its own label, BMOP Sound, with five new releases adding to its existing catalog of 13 commercially released CDs, and 28 more albums in progress. Its performances draw the city’s youngest concert crowds by far, with their combination of Rose’s savvy programming, the orchestra’s incisive and stylish playing, and a general vibe that somehow weds a breezy coolness with a healthy dose of chaos.
In the early days, the whole idea seemed to some like a long shot bordering on folly. “Gil changed the rules of the game,” said local composer and clarinetist Evan Ziporyn. “There are 8 million composers here, and an equal number of musicians, and lots of new music groups, but everyone had been playing for their own little audience, and the scope of what people thought they could do was very limited. Gil believed that he could start an orchestra that would play really well, and play interesting difficult music, and draw an audience. We all thought he was insane, but - you know what? - he did it.”
“When they first started out, a lot of us were happy but skeptical because it takes so much tremendous hard work and imagination to keep it going,” said composer John Harbison, who is also based in Boston. “I think it’s amazing that they’re here and have done so much. In other cities they’ve had similar ventures, but at this point I’d have to say that BMOP is the most active and healthy of any of them - by a wide margin.”
A brand new festival
Thanks to its ambitious stream of recordings and its occasional out-of-town gigs, people well beyond Boston have started taking notice, including those who run the Alice M. Ditson Fund at Columbia University, which supports American contemporary music. Next September, Ditson will sponsor an unprecedented five-day new music festival at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Rose has been chosen to serve as its curator, BMOP will be the host orchestra, and many of Boston’s venerable new-music ensembles will be invited to participate under one roof. Details have not yet been announced, but this should be great news for the Boston music scene. If the idea catches on, it could evolve into the new-music answer to the Boston Early Music Festival.
And in case the founding and flowering of BMOP weren’t enough, Rose became music director of Opera Boston in 2003, and in that role he has helped steer the company into its position as the most artistically vital opera organization in the city, with productions of 20th-century classics such as Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, contemporary works by composers from John Adams (Nixon in China) to Peter Eötvös (Angels in America), and under-explored operas from within the repertory, such as Verdi’s Ernani (later this season) and Mozart’s “Clemenza di Tito.
At first blush, Rose, 43, might seem like an unlikely man to be shaking up Boston’s musical status quo. He can dress the part of the urbane artist, but in person he is easygoing and unpretentious. His training took place largely outside of the traditional power centers of classical music, and he quickly shrugs off any hint of maestro-like grandiosity. He speaks in enthusiastic full paragraphs, but often undercuts his grander statements with a self-deprecating comment, as if he doesn’t want to be mistaken for anything but the ordinary, salt-of-the-earth guy that he both is and isn’t.
Rose was born in Pittsburgh and grew up as the son of a paper salesman in a small Pennsylvania steel town called Latrobe. It was the home of Rolling Rock beer, and a place where the main interest for young men was deer hunting. Musically speaking, he was a happy drifter. He played clarinet and saxophone in his school band, fell in love with opera, and learned about the classical repertoire largely through recordings. “I was ravenous for almost anything different,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of musical discrimination around me, so I could listen to almost anything without much preconception about it.”
He went off with his clarinet to Cincinnati Conservatory, where he dabbled in composition and tried majoring in everything from performance to art history to, ultimately, music history. He worked all the while in a record store and deepened his love of recorded music. At that time, the new CD format was just hitting the market. “I remember thinking, I will have to get hundreds of these things.” These days he is an avid collector and owns thousands.
After college, Rose returned to Pittsburgh and held various odd jobs. He had barely conducted a note, but he auditioned for a conducting program at Carnegie Mellon University and was accepted. It was an intensive four years of training, and he was deeply influenced by his teacher, Juan Pablo Izquierdo, who had a no-frills attitude toward the craft that seemed to resonate. “Music wasn’t about moving your professional persona forward, but about making stuff,” Rose said. “It was sort of a very blue-collar attitude that stuck with me because I came from a steel town. There was what you did, and how you made it, and your word. The rest of it - the persona and the stuff laid on top - was not as important.”
Rose also met his wife, Nathalie, in Pittsburgh, where she was a business school student. He followed her as she pursued her career in Geneva with Hewlett-Packard and then eventually in Boston. (The couple have two kids, now 8 and 5 years old, but have amicably separated.) Meanwhile, his own views on the classical music world were taking shape. He loved the standard repertoire as much as anyone else, but found its endless repetition to be stultifying.
“I don’t believe in the argument that those masterworks, as the highest expression of Western artistic thought, need to be constantly played over and over again.” he said. “I think we minimize their impact by doing that. I think Beethoven would be shocked with our current musical culture -shocked and upset. He wouldn’t recognize it.”
The murky netherworld
Yet even with the spirit of Beethoven allegedly on your side, it can be a lonely road for those passionate about contemporary classical music. Rose receives well over 150 unsolicited scores in the mail every month, most of them from composers he’s never met or heard of. Mainstream orchestras typically program new music only in very small doses, and if they get more ambitious, the conservative subscriber base threatens to revolt. And while new music is isolated within the classical music world, it is also strangely off the radar screen of many who follow other trends in contemporary visual arts or theater. Then there is the problem of the name. A well-educated friend of mine once confessed that he hadn’t realized classical composers still existed. After all, he asked, wasn’t classical music an art form of the 18th and 19th centuries?
This is the murky cultural netherworld in which contemporary music ensembles exist, perform, and fund-raise. What’s more, many casual concertgoers associate all “new music” with the aggressively complex modernism of the postwar avant-garde, but that tradition actually represents a small slice of today’s vibrant musical landscape. From the beginning, Rose has sought out an extremely wide range of composers, from the edgy lapel-grabbing music of Lee Hyla to the sophisticated quicksilver lyricism of Bernard Rands to the skillfully crafted neoclassicism of Arthur Berger. Next season will feature about a dozen more premieres, including works by Bielawa, David Rakowski, and Tigran Mansurian as well as a piece for throat singer and orchestra by Ken Ueno. Last season ended with the ensemble packed onto the stage of Sanders Theatre for the American premiere of Steven Mackey’s Dreamhouse, a gloriously chaotic work that festoons the orchestra with caterwauling electric guitars, a vocal quartet, and the inimitable Rinde Eckert as a sinister architect with a piercingly high voice.
Evan Ziporyn was another composer on that program, and one for whom BMOP’s local presence has been decisive. “I stopped writing orchestra music at about age 30 because I thought, what’s the point of it - even if I get a piece performed, it will be given 45 minutes of rehearsal and then played for a bunch of people who wouldn’t really want to hear it,” he said. “But it was the level of BMOP’s performance with my music that made me think that the orchestra could be a living idiom for me personally.” He added: “If I were given a commission from the BSO tomorrow, I’d jump for joy but I wouldn’t write that kind of piece I wrote for BMOP, because I wouldn’t be confident that they’d give it that kind of committed, pedal-to-the-metal playing. I’d try to give them something different, something that wouldn’t challenge them like that.”
One key to the viability of BMOP’s programming is actually its business model. Many larger organizations rely heavily on the annual commitments of subscribers, and therefore often feel captive to the subscribers’ perceived tastes and preferences. For BMOP, however, ticket sales typically make up just 2 percent of the operating budget, with subscriptions forming one-fifth of that. This gives Rose an extraordinary degree of freedom in programming. He and executive director Catherine Stephan rely mostly on foundation funding and the “old-school” style of donations from individuals who want to support a particular composer. The launching of BMOP’s record label in early 2008, with website downloading to follow, is not expected to create a vast revenue stream. But the reach of the new label should make it easier to approach donors nationwide.
Beyond Jordan Hall
When discussing the label, Rose’s laid-back air quickly vanishes. It is a way, he says, for BMOP’s advocacy work to reach far beyond the confines of Jordan Hall. He is inspired by the historic example of the Louisville Orchestra, which, beginning in the 1950s, made a legendary series of First Edition contemporary music recordings, thereby giving itself a national profile. But more than just increasing BMOP’s visibility, for Rose, the recordings are a way of making a lasting contribution. History will make the final judgments on a piece’s worth, but at least with a recording out there, the music is available to be judged.
He singles out a CD that BMOP made of Berger’s orchestral works. One of the pieces had been commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, another by the New York Philharmonic, but all of the music had been virtually forgotten. When Rose contacted the aging Cambridge-based composer, he was stunned and skeptical that the CD would ever come to fruition. Berger heard the recording just before he died in 2003. Recounting the story, Rose grows visibly emotional.
“This music was destined to just blow away with the wind, and now it will be on every library shelf and it’s part of the public canon,” he said. “It hasn’t changed the world, but it’s really a very unique musical statement that needed to exist in a vibrant and sustainable way, and now it does. Arthur should not be forgotten, and BMOP and I helped him not be forgotten. That’s just too good, it’s too good. No Brahms Symphony I’m going to conduct will ever give me that.”
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.