Boston Classical Review
Aaron Keebaugh
January 18, 2014

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project gave world premieres by three of its veteran composer colleagues Friday night at Jordan Hall.

The sonic worlds explored in the works by Elena Ruehr, David Rakowski, and Ken Ueno covered a wide range of what is meant by “new music” today. The first two recast familiar idioms in bracing new ways. The latter explored more ear-bending sonorities. For each, Gil Rose and the BMOP orchestra provided bold advocacy.

Ueno’s Hapax Legomenon explores the range between noise and musical sound. The title, drawn from Shakespearean criticism, refers to a word that occurs once in a given context.

It’s a fitting name for an unusual concerto that features a performer who has a reputation for pushing musical boundaries. Cellist Frances-Marie Uitti invented and has perfected her own technique of playing the instrument, using two bows to bring out rich harmonies and contrapuntal textures from all four strings.

In its quiescent form, Hapax contains gorgeous spectral washes that expand in all directions. Single wind and string notes jut out unexpectedly from the smooth surface. The glassy harmonics and spacious intervals that Uitti bent into microtonal blurs created a halo effect. By the piece’s end, BMOP musicians accompanied with sung pitches and light whispers as Uitti’s ghostly double stops faded into silence.

The other concerto on the program featured the dazzling technique of another performer and champion of new music, pianist Amy Briggs.

Written especially for her, David Rakowski’s Piano Concerto No. 2 ripples with gnarly jazz riffs in its three sprawling movements. The brasses punctuated Brigg’s funky licks with the charged shouts of big band music, and the dexterously-played marimba and xylophone melodies recalled Milt Jackson solos from the 1940s. Elsewhere, Rakowski’s orchestration thinned into a sheer fabric of sound. Briggs, strumming the strings inside the piano and doubling on celesta, gave the music a silky veneer. The third movement’s cadenza brought traces of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, yet Rakowski’s more frantic and unpredictable style explored wider musical frontiers.

The second movement, a beautiful elegy for Milton Babbitt, broke up the live-wire energy. Here, a solo English horn traded a mournful song, based on a tone-row from Babbitt’s Solo Requiem, with clarinet in fine expression.

The concert’s opener, Elena Ruehr’s Summer Days, like her Sky Above Clouds and Ladder to the Moon, which BMOP previously presented, draws inspiration from a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe.

The image of a deer skull superimposed over a rocky landscape is at once serene and startling, and Ruehr’s music reflects both. Its broad orchestral shades, sweeping string writing, and arching motives, put across with clarity by solo trumpet, brings to mind classic film music and the rural Americana of Copland’s popular scores. Yet these elements grind against one another for patches of rough dissonance. The music also seems to spin in many directions at once. Brass and woodwind calls dart out from the music’s bubbling rhythm, while doubled octaves in basses and piano ground the music to the earth.

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project will perform music by Donald Crockett and Steven Stucky 8 p.m. May 28 at Jordan Hall.