Not at All Monsters of Modernism

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The Boston Musical Intelligencer
Mark DeVoto
February 2, 2011

Gil Rose, who has included Tufts University as one of the bases of his Boston Modern Orchestra Project, brought a group of nineteen of Boston's best freelancers to Distler Hall on Sunday afternoon, January 30, for a program of vivid (and not at all monstrous) American works for small orchestra and chamber groups. BMOP gave the same program at Bowdoin College and Wellesley College before this well-seasoned wrap-up. The audience was smaller than it ought to have been, but the weather was certainly much to blame for that.

Martin Brody was present for the premiere performance of Touching Bottom, one of several Shakespeare pieces he has written; in this case, he explained it was A Midsummer Night's Dream as perceived by Bottom through ass's ears, but the musical pun in the title went far beyond Mendelssohn's bassoon and ophicleide in the opening measures, with subterranean textures of ultra-low instruments massed together. (I kept wondering if Brody remembered Donald Sur's Tango of 1983 composed entirely for orchestra of low instruments.) But the main body of the piece was wrought in lush upper- and middle-register harmony and rich instrumental color, with inverted ninth chords like Ravel's, and unexpected soli for alto flute and piccolo trumpet. One hoped to hear this piece again many times.

Arthur Berger, who died eight years ago, was influenced throughout his career by Stravinsky's works. He is perhaps better known for his works of the 1940s and 50s, in a well-wrought tonal neoclassicism, than for his later atonal style such as in the Septet for flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and piano. The hard-edged gestures, with clinging, repeated harmonies, echoed the later style not of Webern but of Stravinsky of the Movements for piano and orchestra —— not a bad model at that, although Stravinsky would not have included the inside-the-piano manipulations that Berger used very effectively. The three short movements of Berger's Septet revealed a nice unity, such as the link between the last note of the first movement and the beginning of the second, with the same note.

George Rochberg's Chamber Symphony, with three each of woodwind, brass, and strings, works very effectively, in four movements. It uses melodic motives that are perceptible and that really develop, despite the atonality. (I have always admired Rochberg's abstract atonality in works like Contra tempus et mortem, La bocca della verità, and this symphony, more than I do his parodistic works that plunder the libraries of nineteenth-century tonality, although those are better known.) Some of my colleagues find this kind of 1950s music too dated, but I don't agree; it was lively, rhythmic, and harmonically rich. What Rochberg called "Marcia" I would have called "Humoresque." I thought of the spirit of David Van Vactor's twelve-tone music of the 1950s, and even of Erwin Schulhoff's practical works of the 1920s and 30s, and I liked this one too.

After the intermission, the already-scheduled performance of Milton Babbitt's The Crowded Air served as a sad acknowledgment of his death at age 94 the day before. Babbitt was my beloved teacher and friend for nearly half a century, but I had not heard this short but poignant work before. It was for four woodwinds, four strings, piano, guitar, and percussion, in 3/4 meter, contrapuntally complex and densely textured at every minute. The crowded air, one surmised, was also the crowded radio band, as though one were constantly turning the dial to different sounds.

George Perle, who died two years ago at 93, was also my beloved friend and my colleague in forty-five years of Alban Berg research. We would exchange trade secrets about composing as often as we would reveal Geheimnisse about Berg, and there were many of those. Perle's Serenade no. 2 is for a medium-sized group, not your usual chamber ensemble: piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, tenor saxophone, violin, viola, cello, and percussion that includes three timpani. Five movements, and all of them delightful in the serenade manner, with some elegant soli, light and thin, and long melodies, especially for the muted solo violin. The saxophone veered between Charlie Parker-like flowing melodies and short sharp barks, and there was a dialogue with the trumpet as well. And there was even an echo of Wozzeck, Act I, scene 3, the woodwind-celesta chords when Marie is "sunken in thought," in the spread-out harmony of the slow third movement. This is a lovable work and it was lovingly played.

Wayne Peterson, a Californian born in 1927, is not as well known here as the Northeast masters that filled the rest of the program, notwithstanding that he won the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1992. That award was surrounded by controversy. The composer judges on the Pulitzer committee resigned en masse after their unanimous recommendation to award the prize to Ralph Shapey was summarily overturned by the larger Pulitzer board in favor of Peterson. If this was unwelcome publicity for him, it certainly served to get his work better known, and that is all to the good. The final work on this program, Peterson's Transformations, for the full ensemble, including harp and two percussion, was absolutely impressive. I could not tell what was being transformed —— it wasn't the harmonic environment of Berg's Kammerkonzert which seemed like a possible distant ancestor —— but the overall texture, in virtuosic bursts that grew and faded and grew again, was brilliant and completely convincing. Nothing insular or esoteric about this work; it spoke to everyone and everything and it deserves wide hearing.

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project once again shows itself at the forefront of new music activities not only on Boston, but in America generally. Its loyal service to American composers deserves all our praise and our thanks.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.