Gil Rose talks to Michael Miller about contemporary music, BMOP, and the Opera Boston premiere of Madame White Snake

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The Berkshire Review
Michael Miller
February 23, 2010

Gil Rose is best known for his leadership of two high-profile Boston organizations, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), one of the major supporters of contemporary music in America, and Opera Boston, which specializes in musically outstanding performances of operatic masterpieces which have been neglected by the mainstream houses. I know I'll be eternally grateful to him and Opera Boston for my first opportunity to see Weber's Der Freischütz, universally regarded as a seminal work in the history of opera and a great one, but rarely performed today. Just last year there were Shostakovich's The Nose, and Rossini's Tancredi, and now Opera Boston's first commission of a new opera, Zhou Long's Madame White Snake.

Such original programming will seem like a dream to most musical organizations, but both Opera Boston and BMOP are thriving. This doesn't come out of thin air, of course, and it's clear to anyone who has seen an Opera Boston production that success depends entirely upon strict priorities. What impresses me about the work of both organizations is that the essential musical values are consistently on a very high level, and when sacrifices are made, they are as accurately positioned as Gil Rose's beat on the podium. While it is clear that nothing has been wasted and a few sacrifices have been made, there is consistently excellence in the areas that matter most, as well as a few well-judged luxuries like the great Ewa Podleś in Tancredi, where a truly outstanding star turn is pretty much a necessity.

This sense of priorities was evident at an almost fanatical level at BMOP's Malden office, where we met to discuss Gil Rose latest projects: to call it spartan is a serious understatement. No interior decorator or corporate curator has been near it. All furniture is strictly functional. File boxes dotted the mostly empty spaces. For our conversation, Mr. Rose settled us in his own office, one of the fuller spaces, but again, entirely arranged for productivity.

BMOP's activities are multi-faceted. As befits an organization intended to become the major venue for contemporary music in America—which is what Gil Rose plans to achieve for it, or perhaps has achieved already during its fourteen years of operation. Since the beginning BMOP has presented a wide variety of music by contemporary composers in a variety of Boston venues, most commonly Jordan Hall. BMOP appears occasionally in Distler Hall at Tufts University, as well as the spectacular Barbara Lee Family Foundation at ICA Boston. I personally liked the acoustics in concerts which admittedly involved considerable amplification and synthesized music, but Mr. Rose told me that the acoustics are quite difficult for musicians. BMOP also holds three or four Club Concerts every season in a less conventional venue, the Moonshine Room at the Club Café. Programs are never fixed or published in advance, and, according to Mr. Rose, the drinks flow freely. He regards these occasions as a form of outreach, offering opportunities to hear new works and new ensembles in a relaxed environment. As Rose said in the recorded portion of the interview, performing new music should be the core of musical life. Contemporary concert life is historically unique in its almost exclusive concentration on the music of the past.

I asked Gil Rose what he thought of the recent criticisms directed at the Boston Symphony for neglecting the work of young composers in favor of the likes of Carter and Harbison, and did he devote particular attention to newcomers? Without the slightest trace of hesitation or an apologetic tone, he said that he did not. The cause of new music is better served by representing it at its best, and the best is most likely to be found among seasoned and established composers. Has he found a Beethoven Fifth yet? No, although there are some very, very good stuff out there.

Upcoming on March 6 at Jordan Hall is a program called "Strings Attached," which is entirely characteristic of Gil Rose's taste. It begins with a 2009 composition, Stained Glass by Nathan Ball, a young composer who is not all that well known. It is followed by Crazy Weather (2004) by Scott Wheeler, the director of Dinosaur Annex, another prominent new music group in Boston, and a 1983 work, Alvorada, by Stephen Hartke, a distinguished senior composer, who has won just about every award one can think of. We enter even more revered territory with Milton Babbitt's Correspondences for String Orchestra and Synthesized Tape (1967). After that the great violist Kim Kashkashian, will play Neharót Neharót (2006) by Betty Olivero, and Israeli composer, who studied with Luciano Berio at Tanglewood. The evening will conclude with and "old master," Bela Bartók's Divertimento of 1940. This mixture of newer music with the foundations of modern music is typical of BMOP's catholic, but quality-conscious vision of modern music.

A more recent project is BMOP/sound, an ambitious series of CDs, equally as varied as the live concerts program. Among the 17 albums currently available, you will find modern classics like Lukas Foss' The Prairie, living senior masters like Gunther Schuller and John Harbison, and younger established composers like David Rakowski and Derek Bermel. While the program leans markedly towards American music, Louis Andriessen at least represents the Europeans. There is no theoretical agenda behind this consistently appealing series: just excellent music in first-rate performances. The individual releases, said Rose, are compiled over several years. They might begin in a concert performance, recorded after the event under controlled conditions in a concert hall, and later supplemented by more expressly made recordings by the same composer. I haven't heard one of the releases I didn't find rewarding. The sound is always superb, tending towards the present, clear, and lively rather than distant pickups, swathed in atmosphere. This suits most modern and contemporary music well in any case. Gil Rose deliberately chose to put the ever-more-common download in the background and to concentrate on selling CDs. These are beautifully and consistently packaged in cardboard with ample notes and illustrations. It's hard to resist wanting to collect them all—which is the point, of course—since familiar works rub shoulders with the unfamiliar in the sequence of releases. Rose in fact considers it important to put certain lesser-known works on the map through recordings, for otherwise they might be entirely forgotten after their first few auditions, or even their premiere. BMOP/sound is a sine qua non for the lover of modern music. The best way to collect these treasures, after buying up the first seventeen releases is by subscription. A 6-CD subscription is $82.00 (20% off regular price), and a 12-CD subscription is $142.00 (30% off regular price). No need for caution here, go for plentitude and the greater savings it brings.

Most imminent in Gil Rose's schedule however is an Opera Boston premiere, its first, which brings its activities close to BMOP. Madame White Snake, as it is called, is the work of the Chinese composer Zhou Long, who emigrated to America in the late 1980's in the wake of the Cultural Revolution; along with Tan Dun, Bright Sheng and Chen Yi, who became his wife. The commission began, however, with the opera's librettist, Cerise Lim Jacobs, who decided on the subject and wrote the libretto—in English—before she chose the composer. She and her husband Charles, of Brookline, Massachusetts initiated the commission with Gil Rose, actually a co-commission with the Beijing Music Festival Arts Foundation (BMF). It will be performed at the Festival in October of this year.

The story of Madame White Snake (Bai Suzhen) is an ancient Chinese tale, which has proven immensely popular over the centuries. Today it appears in Chinese operas, films, television miniseries, ballets, and children's books. The plot will be familiar to opera-goers through its similarity to Dvorák's Rusalka, in which a water-nymph falls in love with a human being and desires to become one, with disastrous consequences. In Madame White Snake a powerful white snake demon is metamorphosed into a beautiful woman in order to experience love. She meets her true love, Xu Xian (sung by tenor Peter Tantsits), at the Broken Bridge on the West Lake in Hangzhou, and marries him. So widely celebrated is their love that a curious Abbot (bass Dong-Jian Gong) investigates. He sees through her human form to the snake within. When the Abbot learns that Madame White Snake is pregnant, he is horrified by what he considers a violation of all of the traditional taboos of race and religion, the divine and the profane. He decides to intervene and confronts her husband. Madame White Snake is betrayed by her husband and in the moment of betrayal, she is tragically transformed back into a snake. The librettist constructed this version of the story from two basic traditions. In the earlier version, which goes back to remote antiquity, it is more a moral fable, in which Bai Suzhen in an evil snake, who took on the form of a beautiful woman to destroy men, rather like a western undine or siren. Beginning in the Ming Dynasty, the snake became a sympathetic figure, one who yearned to experience love in all its power. Cerise Lim Jacobs grew up with many different variants of both traditions and decided to weave her story from what she recalled of her lifetime knowledge of many of them. Zhou Long's score combines western vocal lines with a plethora of Chinese instruments: the erhu, a two-stringed instrument played with a bow, traditional Chinese flutes—the bamboo flute and the xun, a wind instrument made of clay that is similar to the ocarina—all to be played by eminent Chinese soloists. Robert Woodruff is stage director and David Zinn the designer of what will be Opera Boston's most elaborate production yet. (It includes many video projections.) Ying Huang, who has sung at the New York City Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, as well as at the Met, will sing the part of Madame White Snake. The renowned male soprano, Michael Maniaci, will sing Madame Green Snake, the protagonist's servant, who will begin the narrative in a prologue. Gil Rose, of course, will conduct.

An error of my own deprives us of the earlier part of my conversation with Gil Rose. His concluding statements are very much worth hearing, and our interview will be continued.