Country for old men

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Lloyd Schwartz
January 29, 2008

BMOP has become so popular, you have to look hard in the program to find its full name: Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Founder Gil Rose and his outstanding ensemble celebrated their 10th season at the New England Conservatory on Friday with their annual concert devoted to Boston composers. An enthusiastic and diverse audience (diverse especially in age) cheered, whistled, and hooted its approval for pieces, including two world premieres, by five composers also diverse in age. All the pieces were lively and (unlike Gerontius) fun.

For me, the most satisfying works were by the two oldest composers. Ezra Sims just turned 80, and Rose led the premiere of his 2005 Concert Piece II, in which two solo clarinets (BMOP's impressive Michael Norsworthy and Amy Advocat) are set off against the rest of the orchestra, echoing and one-upping each other. Sims is the guru of microtonality: his scale has not 12 but 72 pitches per octave! This usually creates a sense of restlessness and uneasiness, so his first-movement label, "Fast and Eager," is a little surprising. The interplay between the two soloists and between them and the orchestra, especially the winds (like the haunting horn in the slow middle movement), was compelling, and so was Sim's overall architectural clarity. I was struck, though, by how little dynamic variety there was in the two clarinets — almost no quiet moments. I wish the title were less unmemorably formalistic for such a memorable piece.

Eighty-nine-year-old Leon Kirchner (who now lives in New York, after nearly three decades at Harvard) was represented by an "early" work, Toccata for Strings, Solo Winds, and Percussion (1955). Classicist, expressionist (a student of Schoenberg's), Kirchner is hard to pin down. He has one of the great "ears." Even at its most violent, every thread of his music, every contrapuntal line of every rich layer, is audible and (especially in the hushed slow passages) insinuatingly beautiful. Toccata is another formalist title, but as always with Kirchner, there's a deep and urgent core of complex emotion. Exhilaration is never far from terror — and vice versa. Rose led an exemplary performance.

The winner of the BMOP/NEC composition contest was 28-year-old Israeli composer Oznat Netzer's brief and ebullient Common Ground, which excels in what Elliott Carter often marks in his own music as "scorrevole" (scurrying). The BMOP/NEC concerto competition winner was the brilliant and uninhibited young violinist from Wyoming, Byron Hitchcock, who appeared in William Bolcom's brilliant and uninhibited 1983 Violin Concerto, which embraces a slow-movement lamentation for the late pianist Paul Jacobs and an exuberant rondo finale alternating ragtime with R&B. And in Melrose native Michael Gandolfi's Bassoon Concerto, the BSO's phenomenal principal bassoonist, Richard Svoboda, who played the world premiere with the Melrose Symphony Orchestra last fall, fulfilled every demand for syncopated playfulness and bravura.

Before the concert, composer Fred Lerdahl presented Gil Rose with the Alice M. Ditson Conductors Award, from Columbia University (the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for conductors), for musicians with a commitment to performing American music. Who deserves it better than Gil Rose?