Making Strides: The Boston Modern Orchestra Project Reaping New Harvest with Recordings

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International Musician
June 1, 2009

In a world of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach, it's not easy for modern composers to attract listeners. It's also often highly challenging for musicians to prepare, play, and record works by contemporary composers. Thanks to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), both composers and musicians have an opportunity to share their music with the masses.

Founded in 1996, BMOP is the premiere orchestra in the U.S. devoted exclusively to commissioning, performing, and recording new music, with a special focus on pieces by American composers that are under-appreciated, explains Vice President of Local 9-535 (Boston, MA) John Grimes. Over the past several years, record companies that previously released contemporary orchestral music stopped producing those recordings. "BMOP is stepping up to the plate with this concept," he says. "The other aspect is new works and the recordings of new work."

In 2008, BMOP/sound launched with a commitment to exploring the evolution of the music "formerly known as classical." The idea behind the record label is to bring classical music audiences closer to the music of their own time. The label seeks to rediscover classics of the 20th Century and music from today’s most influential and innovative composers.

The record label is well on its way to achieving these dreams. Within the first year, BMOP/sound released nine recordings, beginning with the critically acclaimed John Harbison: Ulysses. The recording made the "Best CDs of 2008" by Time out New York and earned praise from Fanfare. Other 2008 releases include Michael Gandolfi: Y2K Compliant; Lee Hyla: Lives of the Saints; Gunther Schuller: Journey Into Jazz; Lukas Foss: The Prairie; and Eric Sawyer: Our American Cousin. BMOP/sound was also recognized in February at the 51st Grammy Awards when baritone Sanford Sylvan was nominated for “Best Classical Vocal Performance” for his extraordinary performance on the highly praised Charles Fussell: Wilde.

BMOP/sound, with its aggressive schedule of monthly releases, is the nation’s foremost label launched by an orchestra devoted exclusively to new music recordings. The orchestra records at two high-quality spaces, Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory and Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts.

"There’s a great deal of variety in the kinds of recordings projects that they are taking on," Grimes says. The BMOP orchestra changes in size and instrumentation depending on the piece they are working on.

BMOP’s repertoire is diverse. For instance, Lee Hyla’s Lives of the Saints is best described as deeply rooted in classical practice, but with strong progressive/free jazz influences. It’s described as an American form of expressionism. Meanwhile, Gandolfi’s Y2K Compliant is inspired more by technological and pedagogical matters.

The process of commissioning and recording contemporary works began several years ago. Conductor Gil Rose of Local 9-535 wanted to build an international reputation through BMOP’s recordings. The orchestra struck a deal with the Boston local for the recordings under the Limited Pressing Agreement. Grimes says that the recording projects often follow live performances, therefore the recordings provide a steady stream of electronic media income. All of the musicians and most of the composers have some sort of Boston connection.

"BMOP/sound’s focus on niche market products, and a disciplined and creative self-production business model, is certainly proving itself a harbinger of things to come for the next generation of electronic media consumers," says Grimes.