Sequenza 21
Richard Buell
November 18, 2006

BMOP (the Boston Modern Orchestra Project), now in its 10th season, is on the side of the angels when it comes to being good musical citizens. Can anyone doubt it?

To begin with, when they use the word Project, that’s exactly what they mean. Everything on their recent (Nov. 3) Jordan Hall concert - some six works by four composers - was slated for commercial recording immediately afterward. With this done, the BMOP discography will amount to an impressive 20 releases.

And then there’s that orchestra, made up of Boston’s most creme de la creme freelance instrumentalists. One reward (or even danger) in a program such as this one where everything was unquestionably “for” the orchestra, was that a listener could sit back mindlessly, pull the plug on his mean-spirited analytical tendencies and let all those instrumental timbres, massed or individual, refined or blowsy, thrice-familiar or newly minted, just wash over you. And Jordan Hall is one of those rare, rare places whose acoustics can improve on perfection.

But that wasn’t the whole story of course.

Roughly, it went like this. Starting off, High Bridge Prelude (1999), an autonomous instruments-only spinoff from his imposing soloists/chorus/orchestra cycle on texts of Hart Crane, showed Charles Fussell hardly putting a foot wrong. A listener sensed at once that some sort of narrative was in there - the sad short course of the poet’s life, as it turned out - in part because of the pacing, and partly because of the composer’s ease in a suggestive idiom that might once have been dismissed as “Hollywoodish.” Examples: grayish, troubling wind chords over dark unison low strings; a stalking pizzicato bass line doubled by timpani; the art of the long-building glowery climax. The overall impression was of a noirish texture (velvety black to gritty pale), judiciously reined in by a sense of beginning, middle, and end.

About Fussell’s curtain-raiser you knew for sure that it wasn’t going to go on forever or anywhere close to it. Which was not the case at all with Derek Bermel’s exuberantly sprawling, ethnologically informed, labile, damn-it-all-I’ve-got-the-microphone Thracian Echoes piece (2002), the kind of dazzler that in a different age (say, Leopold Stokowski’s lifetime) might have borne a hokey title like “Bulgarian Rhapsody.”

But back then Bermel wouldn’t have gotten away with it. Would symphonic musicians then have been nearly as confident at “bending” notes as BMOP’s wind players were, or for that matter improvising, or barging their way through fierce metrical thickets, or playing out of phase, or abandoning themselves to an esthetic that knows what it is to go much too far and doesn’t get sheepish about it?

Thracian Echoes is an exciting piece by a composer with - on this single scrap of evidence - what seems to be an extraordinary ear for translating his ethnological adventures (a c.v. groovy enough to render one sick with envy) into orchestral music that is itself adventurous and, in the doing, making it quite personal as well. Who else could have made all that up?

These two pieces were, in more than one sense, on opposing ends of a very well-filled program. In between (and frankly threatening to fade from the memory) came a pair by Lisa Bielawa - Unfinish’d, Sent (2002) and Roam (2001) which found lofty belletristic ambitions (Pushkin! Shakespeare! I read voraciously! Repeat — I read voraciously! Can you believe these program notes of mine?) mixing it up uneasily with a magpie, somewhat naive composing persona. (Bielawa’s c.v. mentions Philip Glass, Brian Ferneyhough, Yale, and cabaret. Shake and allow to jell.)

The recurrent problem with the late Jacob Druckman’s music - and here, with Nor Spell Nor Charm (1999) and Quickening Pulse (1988) - was that you couldn’t always be sure that the exquisitely wafting timbres weren’t the be-all and end-all. Or is it that the music isn’t as performance-proof as it has seemed?

As to that, and the rest, time - and the forthcoming BMOP recordings - will no doubt tell. All throughout, the orchestral playing, under Gil Rose’s unshowy but energizing direction, spoke volumes. It inspired trust.

Richard Buell

© 2006 Sequenza 21