All-American Electricity

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The Boston Musical Intelligencer
Larry Phillips
November 15, 2010

For its seasonal opener "Virtuosity's Velocity," on Saturday, November 13 at Jordan Hall, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project chose to present an all-American program in a chamber-orchestra size. (In the old days, there were more players on stage than audience members.) The program included works by John Coolidge Adams, Arthur Berger, Ross Lee Finney, and Scott Wheeler. All these composers except Wheeler flirted with serial techniques, only to abandon them later.

The program first offered Adams's Son of Chamber Symphony, a 2007 companion piece to his earlier Chamber Symphony, last piece on the program. The crack players played both as if they really liked this music. The Son… had two movements undesignated as to tempo, but the second sounded like allegro to me. Like the earlier work, the piece builds in excitement throughout. And like so much of his other works, Adams knows how to write fast music. I would like to hear it as choreographed by Mark Morris, as it was in the commission.

The Finney piece, Landscapes Remembered (1971), premiered at Cornell University in 1972, provided a contrast to all this excitement. A midwesterner, Finney has an uncanny ability to reflect the terrain in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and North Dakota, which is strange because he counts among his teachers Alban Berg. Finney adds a harp and a piano to telling effect.

The Berger work, Chamber Music for 13 Players (1956), was the weakest piece on the program, which is astonishing, since, as BMOP/sound proves, he wrote some excellent orchestral works. It's in two movements, the first, "Variations," bearing serial techniques, and the second undesignated, although the program notes said it was Allegro moderato. All in all, the piece is short, with the bassoon lending it its peculiar color.

After intermission came the Wheeler City of Shadows (2007). The small audience enthusiastically greeted the composer as he walked onto the stage. Commissioned by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, this piece, in a note by the composer, quotes Kurt Weill, Aaron Copland, and Bruckner's Sixth Symphony, famously recorded by the dedicatee, Kent Nagano. The underlying theme is various cities and their allures. Typical of a composer who is known primarily for his music theater works, Wheeler succeeds in limning evocations of the cities depicted — Berlin, of course, or New York and Boston. The brass punctuations were particularly effective.

The final piece was Adams's Chamber Symphony (1992), and a wonder it was, inspired by Schönberg's Chamber Symphony (and the composer’s then seven-year-old son playing a nearby room). You wouldn’t think these two composers had much in common, but there you have it. About twenty-two minutes long, the three movements, "Mongrel Airs," "Aria with Walking Bass," and "Roadrunner," build in intensity to an electrifying conclusion. There are many similarities to the first piece: the use of synthesizers, the three-movement form, and the motor force. The latter is typical for Adams's work; it’s based on the chief attributes of minimalism.

The BMOP season continues with January's "Double Trouble," William Bolcom joins BMOP in March, and, in May, "Sangita: The Spirit of India," featuring Sandeep Das on tabla.