Maestro, is that a DJ with your orchestra?

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The Boston Globe
Jeremy Eichler, Globe Staff
May 21, 2007

Anyone who caught the Ben Folds performance with the Boston Pops last week and was struck by the thinness of the meeting of musical worlds should have been there on Saturday night at Sanders Theatre to hear the Boston Modern Orchestra Project tee off on three bracingly imaginative works infused with rock 'n' roll and other popular styles.

The revolution in the idea of what an orchestra can be -- from a collective instrument designed for the traditional symphonic repertoire, into an omnivorous agent of the new -- has been underway for well over a decade now, even if it has not been widely televised.

Saturday's highly anticipated concert, presented by the Bank of America Celebrity Series, featured works by Evan Ziporyn, Anthony De Ritis, and Steven Mackey, three serious composers of a generation that felt no need to fear rock 'n' roll like vampires fearing the sun. Nor have they turned to popular music like Bartok turned to folk music, abstracting it through a modernist prism. Rather each composer has placed the sounds, the pulse, or the ethos of popular genres directly at the service of his own musical agenda.

Of the three works, De Ritis's Devolution: A Concerto for DJ and Orchestra was the most flashy in its mash-up of styles, especially with DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller) as soloist. De Ritis gave Miller free reign, within an existing structure, to slice up samples of dance music and show off his virtuoso turntabling. Behind Miller, the composer interwove his own music with parts of Ravel's Bolero and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. A few moments flirted perilously with the familiar sound of club remixes where famous classical melodies are sampled over dance grooves. But more often the piece felt like a rich tapestry in the spirit of Charles Ives, who once composed the music of two colliding marching bands. De Ritis's collision entailed two symphony orchestras, a new music ensemble, and a sophisticated rave.

Ziporyn's Hard Drive was more subtle and less freewheeling but it still channeled a certain nervous energy and rhythmic drive from rock 'n' roll. The music is complex and mercurial but Ziporyn maintains a superb control of color and textures. The piece ends with a riveting series of exhalations, as if breath were leaving the ensemble in a series of downward string glissandos.

Saturday's performance was a premiere, and credit goes to the Celebrity Series for commissioning an imaginative local composer who is under-represented on the local scene.

The evening's second half was given over to Mackey's arresting 2003 work Dreamhouse, a poly stylistic oratorio for orchestra, tenor soloist (Rinde Eckert), vocal quartet, and guitar quartet. In his program note, Mackey references the circumstances of its gestation, both private events (a divorce) and public ones (the attacks on 9/11 and the beginning of the war in Iraq). It was hard not to think of both contexts when encountering the work's text (written by Mackey and Eckert) that evocatively muses on the building of a supposed dreamhouse: how even the most solid foundations can yield a structure that warps with age; how we live beautifully yet perilously intertwined with nature; how the simple fantasies of domestic comfort and protection contain the seeds of willful blindness and dangerous isolationism.

Mackey's orchestral writing weds visceral power with remarkable clarity of detail. Eckert's role is that of the architect who grows steadily Mephistophelean, singing maniacally by the work's end of a home "Where you can live/ Where you'll be safe" while the dark and edgy music suggests anything but comfort and safety. Eckert gave a superb performance, singing with vibrant theatricality often in a stratospherically high register. The beautiful writing for vocal quartet, sung by Synergy Vocals, lends an undertow of yearning while the four guitars (played by the Catch Electric Guitar Quartet) bring some highly unusual sonorities to the orchestra and some turbo-charged power to the work's caterwauling climax.

Under the poised direction of conductor Gil Rose, BMOP sounded full and fearless throughout the evening. This protean ensemble made sharing the stage with drum kits and electric guitars seem perfectly natural. For these fine players, it probably is.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

© Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company