The Boston Globe
Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent
May 18, 2007

In the basement of the Masonic Hall in Porter Square, conductor Gil Rose is giving members of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project fair warning. “This is going to get pretty loud,” he says.

For this rehearsal of Steven Mackey’s Dreamhouse, Rose is surrounded: the orchestra in front of him, three electric guitars and an electric bass on his right, and playwright/performer Rinde Eckert and four singers from Synergy Vocals facing a bank of microphones on his left. A drum set is tucked into a corner of the orchestra; a synthesizer finds a spot on a small stage at the end of the room. The hall’s mirrored disco ball hovers benevolently above the fray as they all dive into a work Rose characterizes as “Mahler meets Ike Turner.”

Once, the appearance of a backbeat or an electric guitar in a classical music concert would have been an exotic novelty or an outright scandal. Today, a generation of composers and performers who have been surrounded by rock ‘n’ roll all their lives make such sounds an organic part of classical music’s expressive arsenal. Tomorrow at Sanders Theatre, BMOP and Rose, the group’s artistic director, will present a program of recent rock-inspired works, a snapshot of the new state of the art.

Rose says such cross-pollination has become much more common over the past decade. “It’s found its way into all kinds of music,” he says by phone before the rehearsal. “The styles seep into each other.” Mackey concurs. “I couldn’t purge myself of rock music if I tried,” he says. “But I couldn’t purge myself of classical music, either. It’s sort of at the DNA level -- these things are wrapped around each other.”

The maturation of the rock influence is evident in the diversity of the three works on the program, presented by Bank of America Celebrity Series: Dreamhouse, a North American premiere; Evan Ziporyn’s orchestral Hard Drive, a world premiere; and Anthony De Ritis’s Devolution, a concerto for DJ and orchestra with soloist Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid. “They’re very different,” Rose says. “What’s consistent in all three is a heightened sense of theatricality -- like a rock show.”

For MIT professor Ziporyn, musical influences are often subconscious. “The conscious part was making a choice that my music should reflect all my influences, that I should bring my whole musical personality to the table,” he says by phone. “Rock music is just one element in a larger palette” that also includes European art music, jazz, and Balinese gamelan music.

For Hard Drive, he allowed the rock side to come to the fore. “Knowing the instrumentation I would have to work with -- two drum sets, and so forth -- I had this whole tradition of orchestral rock in my ear, King Crimson and that sort of thing,” he says. The musical materials evoke the popular music of Ziporyn’s youth; the hard drive of the title is as much a repository of memory and experience as of data.

In De Ritis’s Devolution, DJ Spooky lays down turntabled grooves in a variety of hip-hop and dance styles, but he also references the classics with samples from Ravel’s Bolero and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The orchestra, augmented by drums and an electric bass, recombines quotations from the same works with melodic fragments heard earlier in the piece, producing its own pulsing, referential collage. The dialogue echoes philosopher Richard Fleming , with whom the composer studied. “He would say, ‘Put the texts of two things side by side,’ “ De Ritis remembers. “What can they learn from each other?”

De Ritis, a professor at Northeastern University , calls the classical quotations “a bit of serendipity”: Learning the pieces were to be on the same 2004 concert as the premiere of Devolution, he realized how apt they were. “ ‘Bolero’ is just one big loop,” he points out, likening it to the repeated patterns that underpin hip-hop, and the famously obsessive “Allegretto” from the Seventh Symphony is “for Beethoven, as loopy as you’re going to get.” It all fit with De Ritis’s idea to, in essence, “remix the entire evening.”

Mackey grew up with rock, then received a traditional classical training when complex atonality was in vogue. “Because of a blip of history,” he recalls, “all my teachers were coming from a place where they were trying to purge vernacular references.” But after grad school, Mackey allowed himself to open up, bringing in rock-inspired rhythms and melodies and, starting in the 1980s, using the distinct sound of his own instrument, the electric guitar.

The ambitious Dreamhouse is the centerpiece of tomorrow’s concert. The 45-minute oratorio, first performed in the Netherlands in 2003, outlines the building of a house: An architect (sung by Eckert, who co-wrote the libretto with Mackey) poetically describes each aspect of the construction, then tries to convince the audience that the result is what they’ve always wanted.

Mackey, a professor at Princeton , was composing in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and his own divorce; both text and music provocatively leave room for as broad an interpretation as the listener may wish. Mackey doesn’t consider the work a specific criticism of any person or policy: “More overtly, it’s a metaphor for any relationship,” either with someone else or with one’s country, he says. “In a funny way, I actually think of the piece as being patriotic. Not in any ironic way, but in an honest, glorious way.”

Dreamhouse makes room for a century’s worth of disparate musical styles, all woven into Mackey’s distinct voice. Mackey considers that squarely in the mold of his classical predecessors. “Take Mozart,” he says. “There’s traditional counterpoint, Austrian folksong, Italian opera, sacred music, it’s all in there -- but to us, today, it’s just classical music.”

Ziporyn agrees. “Mozart and Bach, they were very cosmopolitan composers. They didn’t decide not to use a tune because it was too folk-like. That’s the tradition in concert music: to be a survey of the whole culture.” For De Ritis, that goal is part of the artist’s responsibility. “What’s crucial to me as an American composer,” he says, “is to reflect what’s happening around me.”

© Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company