Posts Tagged “BMOP”

In Media Res / Roam / Double Violin Concerto / Synopses 1-15

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose
With Carla Kihlstedt, violin and voice; Colin Jacobsen, violin; Lisa Bielawa, soprano

BMOP Sound

Lisa Bielawa is a phenomenon. The perky San Francisco native who, judging from her booklet photo, appears to be very much on the sunny side of life, first gained fame as a singer, touring with the Philip Glass ensemble from 1992, although she had concurrently been a composer since her earliest years and had received several performances when she was in her teens.  She founded in 1997 the MATA Festival to promote the work of new composers, and began concentrating on her own compositions. Right from the beginning, she has shown a decided preference for the larger forms of music. Her dense, robust symphonic style is not at all what you would expect of a vocalist turned composer, although she does not ignore the lyrical element in her music.

Roam (2001), one of the earlier works on this program, already reveals Bielawa’s gift for perusasive, moody orchestration and her passionate love of literature. The inspiration in this case was a quote from Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin: “I roam above the sea, / I wait for the right weather, / I beckon to the sails of ships. / … / When shall I start on my free course?” In keeping with the verse, which has more to say about the inner state of the speaker than it is a tone picture of the sea, Bielawa focuses on the tension between the exhileration of freedom, like a ship moving freely on the sea, and the danger that freedom entails.

Double Violin Concerto (2008) was dedicated “to Colin, Carla, Gill, and BMOP” and reflects Bielawa’s close personal and professional relations to three key figures in the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (see above). It represents a further step beyond Roam in its great melodic and tonal warmth. After the contrapuntal solemnity of the opening movement, “Portico,” we are in for a surprise in “Song,” as violinist Kihlstedt sings an English translation of a passge from Gorthe’s Faust accompanied by her own scordatura violin and Jacobsen’s deft arpeggios in support of the vocal line. The text is appropriate, too, a tribute to the transformative power of the imagination: “Leave the great world, let it run riot, / And let us stay where it is quiet. / It’s something that has long been done, / To fashion little worlds within the bigger one.” Jacobsen takes the center stage in the final movement, Play with a Play,” which begins in deeply moving music inspired by Gregorian settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, grows more intense, and almost imperceptibly metamorphoses into, first, a stately dance episode, and then an evocation of gypsy fiddling with an improvided cadenza.

Bielawa herself is the vocalist in Unfinish’d, Sent (2000), inspired by a line from Richard III in which the protagonist excuses his evil proclivities by blaming them it on his physical deformity: “Unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.” In the first half of the piece, which is all orchestra, a gesture struggles mightily to no avail, to coalesce into a melody. When the singer enters with an eery setting of Shaespeare’s verse, it reinforces the sense of something (such as a work of music?) striving to be born. Sound echoes sense again in an unsettling, rhythmically-recast, quote from Vivaldi’s Winter, emphasizing the play’s opening line, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer.”

Lisa Bielawa saves the best for last on CD1. Titled In Media Res, the 2009 work is perhaps the most exacting of all genres, the concerto for orchestra. Bielawa wrote it to commemorate her tenure with BMOP and her friendships with its members. She based it, in turn, on her 15 Synopses, pithy, aphoristic pieces lasting on the average about five minutes that typically develop out of small kernels and crystallize to give a distinct impression of the personality and prowess of each musical artist. The individual Synopses are further distinguished with whimsical 6-word titles, such as “In The Eye Of The Beholder,” “It Takes One To Know One,” “No-No-No, Put That Down” and “Two days after you left, I,” further underscoring the orchestral concerto genre itself as a species of serious play. (The 15 Synopses are collected together on CD2, which, at 68:45, cannot exactly be considered an “extra” on this program.)

What Bielawa did, amazingly, was to fashion her Concerto for Orchestra (which truly deserves the name: it is not by any means a pastiche) by assembling the various Synopses like a skilled lapidary into a very impressive and solidly cohesive whole that is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. Like the major work of symphonic music that it is, it ranges over all the emotions, from rising excitement mounting to terror at the very opening, to sadness, pensiveness, hope, and even joyous affirmation. Add the glowing, luminous orchestration, revealing a composer who understands well the range and expressive capability of every instrument, and you have a concerto for orchestra that will stand up with the most distinguished achievements in this genre of the past hundred years. Seriously, I urge every aficionado of 20/21 music to give full attention to this rising star.

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Serious Fun

David Rakowski

Winged Contraption; Piano Concerto; Persistent Memory

Marilyn Nonken, piano; Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, conductor

Composer David Rakowski’s jocularity is well known. His many piano etudes (88 at last count) feature a number of sly allusions to other styles and works, as well as more overt zaniness; one even requires the performer to play pitches with their nose! His previous concerti have featured various subterfuges in which the soloist is upstaged by the orchestra. And, famously, goofiness abounds on his website. But alongside Rakowski’s penchant for light-hearted expression are consummate craftsmanship and music of considerable poignancy. BMOP’s recording features three ensemble works that highlight both Rakowski’s eloquence as an orchestrator and his ability to evoke a wide spectrum of emotions in music.

Persistent Memory was written while the composer was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome: a period in which the composer experienced adversity and loss on several fronts. Cast in two-movements, it features an elegy suffused with considerable melancholy and long arching melodies reminiscent, without overt homage, of the Copland “Americana school.” This is juxtaposed with rejoinders: tart brass punctuations and, in the second movement, a defiant scherzo – featuring tour de force writing for the winds – and a series of variations that refract the elegy’s material through a multi-colored prism.

The CD’s title work was composed as a sixtieth birthday tribute to Martin Boykan. The pre-compositional conceit for the piece is that it is exactly sixty pages long – again a glimmer of Rakowskian witticism. But composer imparts considerable gravitas here as well. The texture features angst-laden horn-writing and Bergian dissonant string verticals that belie any notions of Winged Contraption as an occasional bouquet. Amid these serious signatures lie percussive adornments and a propulsive clock: an ostinato that manifests variously as repeated note figures (a frequent Rakowski device) and burbling arpeggiations.

Marilyn Nonken has been one of several tireless champions of Rakowski’s solo piano works. It seems particularly fitting that he has fashioned a concerto for Nonken that references several of the etudes composer for her – resulting in a work of ambitious scope and a near-frenetic events structure. Easily one of Rakowski’s finest pieces to date, it features a host of playing techniques – thereby allowing Nonken to exercise both her conventional chops and explore some avant paths along the way.

The first movement’s opening is a master class in the “one-note” introduction. A-natural is treated to dampening, plucking inside the piano, various chordal harmonizations, and gradual haloing by the instruments of the orchestra until it is revealed in relentless repetition as an ostinato – a self-contained first theme group! Repeated single pitches once again provide a motoric canvas upon which a host of coloristic devices and harmonic divergences are imposed. The plucked A-natural returns at the beginning of each movement of the concerto as a centering and invocational device.

While the piano writing is tailor-made to Nonken’s abundant capabilities, she’s also given a chance to exercise a bit of whimsy in several asides for toy piano. The concerto also features a few other unconventional touches, such as the inclusion of a novelty percussion item called chatter-stones. And although one is glad for Rakowski’s occasional digressions into humor and his imaginative textural additions to the proceedings, the most striking moments in the concerto feature elegant writing for the conventional instruments in the band. Wind solos and keening string sostenuto passages accompany piquant, colorful verticals in the piano – and that irrepressible plucked A! – in a gorgeous slow movement.

The scherzo, on the other hand, focuses on short rhythmic cells and terse orchestral interjections. It also revels in adroitly jazzy piano-writing. The orchestra answers these swinging signatures with sassy horn blats and suavely articulate strings: hallmarks of a bygone era of cinematic music warmly recreated here.

The repeated note device reappears in the last movement, leading to a quote from Rakowski’s first piano etude, “E-Machines.” The quote references still another quote (a quote within quote!) of Beethoven’s Für Elise. Nonken records Rakowski’s cadenza for the CD, but it’s worth mentioning that the composer let her create her own for the premiere – such is the trust and close working relationship of creator and interpreter here.

The other interpreters on the scene, Gil Rose and the BMOP, are sterling in their preparation and superlatively musical. The disc is one of the orchestra’s best thus far, and the weightiest and most satisfying in Rakowski’s discography to date. Serious fun indeed!

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