Stylus Magazine
February 15, 2013

This Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert was another of Gil Rose’s theme-based concerts with a catchy name. The pieces were Suite for Eight Violas (1975) by Gordon Jacob, Serenade No. 1 for Viola and Orchestra (1962) by George Perle, Singing Inside Aura (2013) by Chinary Ung, Viola Concerto (2012) by Donald Crockett, and, finally, Xian Shi (1983) by Chen Yi. The selections were disparate in style and affect; a listener certainly comes away with an appreciation for the range of effects from this instrument within modern music. The core of the concert was embodied in the pieces by Ung and Crockett. Finding the right array of pieces to showcase the viola and fill up the concert felt strained at times.

The first piece of the evening, Jacob’s Suite for 8 Violas in 4 movements was a case in point. It starts with Dedication, a lush, romantic opening, with occasional flavor of Bach’s Musical Offering and then parts that are reminiscent of Dvorak, occasionally Barber-like, occasionally neo-baroque.
The first movement was sometimes a little pitchy, and the same was true in the second movement, a Scherzo and Drone, which reminded me of Ravel or Vaughan Williams. A little modernity pokes its way in, but isn’t at the heart of it. The Chorale was my favorite movement, a Kabalevsky-like movement, with sustained tones, elegiac with effective pauses for breath and nice chordal movement. The final Tarantella breaks out into a dance-like movement, but it is muddy without sufficient range. There’s some nice contrapuntal filigree, but ultimately, it seems an unfocused movement, lacking in direction. It’s not a piece I would imagine returning to, and it didn’t feel like the orchestra would either. It seemed a warmup, and easily forgettable.

George Perle’s Serenade is more successful. When we think of Mozart’s serenades, we think of his lighter pieces, and while Perle’s isn’t a great piece, it’s a nice experience. The Rondo is a modern piece, influenced by the Viennese-school, with atonal melodies, interesting counterpoint, a complex, rangy melody, an unexpectedly jazzy interlude with bass and drums. It has a contrastive slow section before its busy conclusion. The second movement is a slow ostinato. The recitative is an interesting movement, more linguistic, with multiple voices carried by the solo viola, which at times seemed to be talking to itself in the rhythms of speech. At times I found it hard to believe only one instrument was performing. The scherzo has a complex 7-beat rhythm with viola alternating with woodwinds in parallel thirds and sixths. The movement becomes more concerto-like bringing in all the performers. Finally, a coda returns us to the feeling of the start. The BMOP, under Rose’s direction, extracted what there was to find.

Singing Inside Aura, by Chinary Ung, was really a fine departure from the expected. If you want your concert to be an experience, here’s where the night’s concert begins. This work by a Cambodian spectralist, features the singing of Chinary’s wife, Susan, as a foil and accompaniment to the viola, sometimes doubling the melody, sometimes opposing it. This piece is a single 15-minute movement with a slow underlying pulse, a melody that floats up and down. Susan sings and plays the Cambodian melodies, dramatic, tense, building with bright sustained chords. There is time for long, slow breaths. Within the movement, the melody is often in unisons, initiated by the flutes, with spectral chords, sci-fi-like. There’s always the slow pulse underpinning the glissandi. Sometimes you feel what seems to be the mood of Chinese opera. Later, the melody becomes almost a torch song. The drums insert themselves. There are bells. Then there’s an ever-falling downward curve, always moving to a new chord, theremin-like, to a quiet denouement, with her own whistling. It’s a really interesting piece, and Susan Ung carries it very well.

Crocket’s Viola Concerto is another excellent piece, starting with shimmering, descending arpeggios, and points of brightness in the percussion. This opening Scherzo has descending percussive punctuation then rapid arpeggios and big chords. There is an interesting syncopated descending scale which leads to a quiet solo ending. The second movement, Suspended, generates the sound of thunder in the distance and languid, sustained viola, waiting, verdant. The distant thunder and sometimes Beethoven-like chords could remind you of the Pastorale, but the concerto never sounds derivative. Heavy and Energetic (and maybe a little ponderous) gives us an oompah feeling, and finally becomes melodic, but always with a rhythmic cadence below. There are rising triplet rhythms. This movement is restless, with emphatic syncopations in the low instruments and percussion. Finally, Fast and Furious channels Satie and Prokofiev. Crocket really likes syncopation, which carries this movement in many places. After a languid section, it builds to the end. .well, almost the end. (There are a couple of false endings.)

The final piece, Xian Shi by Chen Yi seemed more nineteenth-century in concept. Sometimes you hear echoes of Bartok or Prokofiev, but I had trouble understanding where this piece was headed. Many sections were interesting, with driving drums and quiet pizzicatos, strummed strings. There is a little code with Chinese-sounding melodic material. We hear scratchy slides upward and a vigorous viola punctuated by the orchestra.

The Ung and Crocket pieces carried the concert, but in some ways, I couldn’t escape the feeling that BMOP wasn’t fully engaged. Perhaps they felt as I did, that the musical choices were good and had many excellent bits, but ultimately didn’t hang particularly well together. Occasionally, I think Rose missed some opportunities, and didn’t build an emotional edifice out of the pieces. Note for note, the performance was excellent, but it was sometimes flat and a little mechanical. Perhaps it’s because it’s been a long winter, and we’re all a little tired. Time for spring.