Bielawa, BMOP: Performance Provocateurs

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The Boston Herald
Christine Fernsebner
March 31, 2008

On Saturday night the New England Conservatory's teal and gilt Jordan Hall enjoyed the premiere of no fewer than four new works by living, breathing composers and performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which parties where symphony orchestras fear to tread. Bucking both contemporary and traditional expectations, provoking appreciation and conversation, this was a night of risks that paid off handsomely.

An unusual, a range of ages was represented in the audience, in varying degrees of casual dress and formality: There were suits, jeans and at least one kilt in the crowd (as well as Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer). All were quickly drawn into a short, engaging piece by Argentine composer Alejandro Rutty. Bursting with nervous energy, The Conscious Sleepwalker Loops swung from dense bombast to twinkling toy-piano moments, hinting at imminent explosion when not outright tangoing.

Derek Hurst's Clades, on the other hand, was Hitchcockean suspense. There was never a moment of steadiness or comfort, no languor that wasn't punctuated with stray notes of piano and wood block (and more plucking than Ms. Palmer's eyebrows). The Firebird Ensemble acted as one disjointed beast, trading notes as if they were puppeteers responsible for different limbs of a single character. Violin fell against viola falling on cello like dominoes.

Lisa Bielawa, BMOP's composer-in-residence and the evening's headliner, is as well known for singing her colleagues' work as she is for writing her own. On Saturday, she left the vocal parts of her Double Violin Concerto to her collaborator Carla Kihlstedt, known for her participation in Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and other avant-rock endeavors. Kihlstedt was charged with some intense multitasking - playing violin, wailing verse translated from Goethe's Faust and turning the pages of her score - which she pulled off with ease and grace while bouncing back and forth on beribboned blue heels. She and co-violinist Colin Jacobsen played as if in engaged in a friendly argument and sometimes exchanged grins like partners-in-crime. The audience was a happy bystander, leaping to its feet and whistling as the pink-chiffoned composer hugged Gil Rose, the soloists and nearly everyone else present.

Ken Ueno also drew a loud reaction, and the greatest variety of reactions, with his first classical throat-singing work. In an impeccable gray suit, gray silk tie around a high collar, and an even higher, starchier mohawk, Ueno strode onstage bearing a pod of blue and gray plastic that he placed on a wooden bar stool. On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypotheses began when he solemnly turned the object to reveal a boombox.

Then he pressed play. Singing into a microphone over his prerecorded juvenilia - literally juvenilia: the voice of a 6-year-old Ueno playing with a tape recorder and counting in Japanese - the composer squinted with intensity as he wrung deep growls and drones from his throat, sometimes reaching for unearthly high notes, echoed by the string section, sometimes performing a slowcore beatbox. It was unclear where Ueno's voice ended and distortion began as he cupped the microphone with his hands and breathed all over Jordan Hall through black loudspeakers. Placing fingers on his lips to manipulate the wordless drone, he played his own face.
A faction of the audience stood up and shouted its appreciation; those who stayed in their seat clapped while continuing to murmur as they had, barely hushed, throughout the piece. Ueno - and the BMOP - had given them something to whisper about.

Lisa Bielawa's Double Violin Concerto, performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, at Jordan Hall, Saturday night.