Boston Classical Review
David Wright
February 16, 2013

Why did the contemporary-music orchestra give a concert of five works that all featured the viola?

a. because they wanted to make a pun in French
b. because it was St. Violantine’s Day
c. because there’s some good stuff for viola out there
d. the orchestra ordered up two brand-new viola pieces, never heard before

The answer is “e”—all of the above (well, maybe not b). Friday night in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, led by its artistic director Gil Rose, presented a program featuring two world premieres, in which at least four authentic violartuosos put on a Boston Violathon, a moving violation, a typographical error elevated to a concert title: “Voilà! Viola!”

The first premiere, Singing Inside Aura, by Cambodian-born Chinary Ung, vividly evoked sounds and settings of Southeast Asia in a ritual atmosphere, with an amplified violist-singer (the composer’s wife, Susan Ung) at its center. Basses and gong boomed, and jangly percussion, piccolo and high string harmonics sparkled, stretching out the wide sonic space—the “aura”—within which Ms. Ung played and sang.

Sometimes her viola part was in unison with her barky, priest-like vocalizations, but at other times she played variations or counterpoints to what she was singing, no small feat. Around her, the aura of orchestral sound, while harmonically static, constantly changed color, suggesting the cries of rainforest birds one moment and a solemn procession the next, effects rendered with skill and imagination by Rose and his players.

Following an intermission, Donald Crockett’s Viola Concerto took its world bow, with Kate Vincent as soloist. Crockett produced the work last year in an act of architectural renovation, fitting an old structure (a three-movement piece composed in 2009 for Vincent and her Cambridge-based group Firebird Ensemble) inside a new one (a four-movement concerto for viola and orchestra).

The piece’s layered history was reflected in the performance Friday night, as the orchestra’s principal violinist and cellist took prominent solo roles behind Vincent, and members of the Firebird Ensemble were salted among the BMOP players.

In classic fashion, Crockett turned three movements into four by adding a scherzo, but in this case the scherzo comes at the beginning, launching the piece in a swirl of unusual orchestral textures, with low wind trills and hard staccato brass chords punctuating the viola’s jagged, double- and triple-stopping phrases. None too robust to begin with, Vincent’s viola sound was frequently (and apparently deliberately) swallowed up by the aggressive orchestra.

The viola came into its own, however, in the second movement, marked “Suspended.” As orchestral chords softly pulsated and the clarinets quoted their ominous arpeggio-chord from The Rite of Spring, the viola played long notes and tremolos at the top of its range, then blossomed into a songful monologue, often duetting in close imitation with the violinist from the orchestra.

The third movement was like another scherzo, the viola capricious with jerky phrases or spinning triplets, the orchestra stomping and rambunctious like Copland at the rodeo or Bill Schuman in Times Square. Without letting up on the driving, choppy rhythm, the players conveyed the ingenious variations on the theme that Crockett had tucked into the movement’s colorful scoring.

More inventive use of color appeared in the rather episodic finale, which alternated between speedy and leisurely sections, the latter featuring a viola torch song over a smooth, jazz-inflected piano. Touches of woodwind, percussion and pizzicato string color enhanced the sound, as familiar items from earlier in the piece—the Rite-style clarinet arpeggios, the viola-violin duet, the viola tremolos—returned for a final bow. The loud brass chords came back too, but the viola had the last word in high harmonics, the soft answer that turned away wrath.

Soloist Vincent’s performance came across as rather light-toned and vulnerable in a rough neighborhood, but perhaps that was the intended effect. In any case, she, Rose and the orchestra gave this concerto an expressive and colorful debut.

Friday’s concert began with a work by a composer of slightly before our own time, Gordon Jacob (1895-1984), a prolific Englishman whose attractive style combined Ravel-like fantasy with folklore à la Vaughan Williams. What better to hear at the start of an evening like this than the dark, rich sound of eight violas pealing out a sturdy English melody in perfect unison?

Jacob’s Suite for Eight Violas, composed in 1975, then branched out into counterpoint reminiscent of an Elizabethan consort of viols (during which the perfect intonation of the opening became a little shakier). This and the following three movements—a country-style Scherzo and Drone, a fervent Chorale in long chords, and an incisive Tarantella—all had their charm and didn’t overstay their welcome. Yet the piece couldn’t escape a certain “middle of the road” sonority, a reminder that the viola is the middle child of the string family, not given to extravagant behavior.

At first, it seemed that this modest instrument would fare no better in George Perle’s Serenade No. 1 for Viola and Chamber Orchestra, as soloist Wenting Kang’s rapid opening phrases seemed to be covered by anything and everything in the orchestra, from high notes in the winds to a double-bass pizzicato. But this turned out to be a deliberate effect, and when Kang took the mute off her instrument her vibrant tone held its own just fine.

After a curious Ostinato consisting of shifting orchestral chords and only an intermittent, staccato D sharp from the soloist, Kang stepped forward in the Recitative, actually a very lightly accompanied solo cadenza, which she delivered with a sense of restrained drama and yet considerable freedom. Her intonation, tonal clarity, and variety of color and attack left nothing to be desired. Perle’s Serenade closed with a Scherzo in clashing rhythms and a rather long Coda that stepped along with slashing double-stops for the soloist à la Stravinsky.

Closing the concert was Chen Yi’s tone poem Xian Shi, a 1983 work amusingly billed as “the first Chinese viola concerto.” Born in 1953, Chen soon shared with her parents a love of Western classical music, but her musical development was interrupted during the Cultural Revolution, when the teenage Chen was sent to the countryside to do hard labor. Ultimately, however, she attended Beijing’s Central Conservatory and became one of the new 1980s generation of composers seeking a Chinese way in classical music.

Chen’s life story seemed recapitulated in Xian Shi, which opened in full Romantic concerto mode, with Lizhou Liu’s solo viola in heroic dialogue with a lush-toned orchestra. (If Erich Wolfgang Korngold had scored a Hollywood movie set in China, it might have sounded like this.) As the piece went on, however, these familiar Western sounds and gestures began to give way to more folkloric influences—a plucked viola cadenza, for example, invoking a pipa, or homegrown percussion effects.

The coda began in a kind of Chinese New Year explosion, with streamers of sound shooting everywhere, and then more of those staccato brass chords drove the soloist’s fast fiddling to the end. Violist Liu gave a vigorous, full-toned and accurate account of the work, if a little short on soloistic flair. Rose and the BMOP sounded ready to do Tchaikovsky next.

Although Gordon Jacob and George Perle have left us, the other three composers on the program were present to trot onstage and bask in well-earned applause.