The Arts Fuse
Caldwell Titcomb
November 20, 2010

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) kicked off its season with a Jordan Hall program on November 13. Entitled “Virtuosity’s Velocity,” the concert was devoted to five American works for chamber orchestra. The music was demanding and difficult, but conductor Gil Rose did indeed elicit plenty of virtuosity from his ensemble.

Composer John Adams (b. 1947) was represented by two impressive works: Chamber Symphony (1992), and Son of Chamber Symphony (2007). For some reason the latter opened the concert and the former closed it, but no matter. Adams is a New England native and Harvard-trained but has long resided in California. His early music emphasized minimalism, but he soon moved beyond that to a more embracing style that has made him for many the foremost living American composer.

In Son (which lasted 26 minutes) the outer movements are characterized by rhythmic propulsion, and one is not surprised that the work in 2008 was choreographed by Mark Morris for the San Francisco Ballet. The music lends itself admirably to bodily motion. A section of the second movement seems to paraphrase Adams’s own masterly Naive and Sentimental Music (1998–99), and there is here an emphasis on tubular bells.

The three movements of the parent Chamber Symphony (22 minutes) are titled “Mongrel Airs,” “Aria with Walking Bass,” and “Roadrunner.” A woodblock pulse leads to music of great excitement, and the last movement is nothing short of rambunctious.

Ross Lee Finney (190–97) was a Midwesterner represented here by Landscapes Remembered (1971). This is a relatively restrained tone poem that features microtones and glissandi. Prominence is given to the harp, vibraphone, and muted trumpet, and the warm alto flute is put aside for the chirping piccolo.

Arthur Berger (1912–2003), who taught many years at Brandeis University and the New England Conservatory, wrote his Chamber Music for 13 Players in 1956. He termed it “neo-classic 12-tone music,” though I don’t see anything neo-classical about it. The two short movements are a set of variations followed by a motive-driven allegro. This music has never struck me as appealing.

The remaining piece was City of Shadows (2007) by Scott Wheeler (b. 1952), who was educated at Amherst and has a Ph.D. from Brandeis. He has, since 1989, been co-director of the musical theater program at Emerson College, and as a composer he is best known for works involving voices. Here, however, is a 16-minute work for instruments only, commissioned by a Berlin orchestra. Wheeler says, “The city depicted in my piece might be Boston or New York as easily as Berlin.” The scoring is fascinating, and there is use of flutter tonguing along with admirable licks on marimba and celesta and a handing of melody from flute to oboe to clarinet. Wheeler says that he tucked in short references to Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Copland’s Quiet City, and Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. It all added up to something I’d like to hear again.

BMOP’s next concert comes on January 22 and presents music by Harold Meltzer, Stephen Paulus, Mathew Rosenblum, and the late great Michael Tippett.