The Weekly Dig
Michael Brodeur
May 24, 2006

I believe I’m supposed to blame Theodor Adorno for this, but somewhere along the way in the 20th century’s formative years, modern music got divvied up between “serious” and “popular” ears. As lame distinctions go, this one has proven particularly persistent, hanging around to this day in boiled-down form as an opposition between fun and not-fun. In any case, it has left us with an unnecessary schism in the way we understand American music.

Sounds serious, huh? Lucky for us, we have the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, who seem to specialize in the sonorous clearing up of pesky misunderstandings like this. In the past few years, they’ve disproved the alleged emotional starkness of minimalism, stitched the tear between Eastern and Western traditions with a stirring tribute to Toru Takemitsu, and this week, their Big Band program might fill in the imagined blank space between the seductive rep of jazz and the off-putting “difficulty” of good old-fashioned straight-up modernism. Let me stop there.

“I’m not much for labels, though I tend to put a label on everything,” BMOP artistic director and conductor Gil Rose tells me. “I do these concerts in themes, but only in an attempt to show that the labels are kind of meaningless.” Indeed, it’s tough to read the plainly stated title of the program - “Big Band” - without inklings of things up sleeves. For one thing, the program doesn’t default to Dorsey, Miller or Ellington at all; in fact, the variety of composers featured only highlights the multiplicity of ways that jazz and “serious” music have each formed the shape of the other - or shaped the form. Whichever.

Perhaps the most modern feature of this program is that it started as a consideration of raw materials rather than with a particular statement. “We came up with an idea for a concerto for a big band configuration,” says Rose, “and we built the rest of the program around it.”

The end result of this idea is William Thomas McKinley’s RAP, which will make its world premiere at Jordan Hall. Rose describes RAP (an acronym for “rhythm and pulse”) as “a wild, wild 25 minutes” that neatly houses McKinley’s rivaling penchants for neoclassicism and atonality within a sturdy jazz framework, led along by Richard Stoltzman’s soaring clarinet. And yes - there’s some rapping.

“Yes, rapping. I’m a little frightened,” Rose confides. “I’m actually on my way to Stoltzman’s house right now for some rehearsals with the combo that fronts the band - and he’s got the rapping down, but it’s a little frightening. McKinley is a real unicorn; a maverick, a real American talent. I think only Mark Twain could have invented him.”

Actually, this night is pretty heavy on the mavericks. Leonard Bernstein is represented with his brassy Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, while George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue fills the program’s “of course” slot - though in a pared-down arrangement for 19 players, the way it was originally done for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra in 1931. “It’s a completely different piece in the small version,” says Rose. “A much better piece, actually.”

The highest percentage of cocked eyebrows will surely be due to the inclusion of Milton Babbitt’s All Set. Though he expects it to cause some “confusion and general mayhem,” Rose sees Babbitt as more than just the mack-daddy of 12-tone serialism.

“He’s got to be the most misunderstood composer,” Rose says. “Babbitt is a widely more coloristic composer than people realize. More lyrical, too. He’s one of those guys that everybody got wrong. People know his music and they think of him as so heady and brainy - but it’s always in service of something very musical and lyrical. I think he loves that people get him all wrong. I’d imagine he finds it entertaining to no end.”

In true BMOP spirit, Big Band isn’t so much about teaching you a thing or two as it is about dispelling some of what you might assume about “serious” music. “Many composers have been crossing these boundaries for a long time,” Rose says, “but I think we like the boundaries better. They help us categorize things - we know where to put it at the Virgin Megastore if we can stick a label on it. That’s not we’re trying to do.” And, of course, it wouldn’t be a BMOP show without some divergence from the plans.

“There might be a few surprises,” Rose says slyly, “Let’s just say I don’t think everything that’s going to happen is going to appear on the page.”

- Michael Brodeur, The Weekly Dig

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