'Pictures' Seldom Played

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The New York Times
Anthony Tommasini
November 12, 2010

For those who like to stump their musical friends with the old guess-the-composer game, a good puzzler would be "Sea Piece With Birds."

This 1952 orchestral work, some four minutes of somber, heaving music, is thick with chromatic chords that move in big parallel blocks, with skittish atonal themes mingling hesitantly above. The atmospheric orchestral colors suggest strangely updated Debussy. A frenetic climax sounds like some ornery blast of Varèse.

The composer?

Virgil Thomson, best known for his iconoclastic and affecting operas Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, with nonsensically mesmerizing librettos by Gertrude Stein.

But Thomson had another side, exemplified by "Sea Piece With Birds," the third in a set of impressionistic essays for orchestra written independently over five years and later grouped into a 20-minute suite, Three Pictures for Orchestra. This seldom-played score concludes a fascinating new recording of six Thomson works from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP/sound 1018). This impressive musician-run ensemble was founded in 1996 by the expert conductor Gil Rose with a mission to champion neglected 20th-century works and living composers. The performances here are accomplished and engrossing.

"The Seine at Night," the first of the Three Pictures, depicts Paris and the river that divides it. In the preface to the score Thomson wrote that the Seine is "so deep and its face so quiet that it scarcely seems to move." He conveys this impression in music that, while shimmering on the surface with melodic strands that sound like fractured medieval chant, is grounded by plush organic harmonies subtly inching forward.

In "Wheat Field at Noon," the second piece, Thomson employs his variant of 12-tone technique, arranging pitches into four mutually exclusive chords that are put through constant variation. But you do not have to know any of that to be enticed by this deceptively contemplative and lucidly orchestrated music.

For this recording Mr. Rose has astutely chosen strong Thomson orchestra works that remain on the margins of the repertory, including two from the early 1960s. A Solemn Music could have been written only by a composer who earned his way through high school and college (Harvard) as a church organist. The music is run through, almost obsessively, with foursquare, hymnal chords. Yet the harmonies wander and surprise you with bitonal clashes, nasal blasts and snare-drum rolls. Thomson seems both to evoke and to debunk the solemnity promised in the title. A Joyful Fugue is all industrious yet quirky counterpoint.

Mr. Rose also offers three Thomson works for voice and orchestra that are inexplicably neglected. The baritone Thomas Meglioranza, singing with hale voice and crisp diction, gives a compelling account of The Feast of Love, which sets Vigil of Venus, an anonymous Latin ode to sensuality (translated into English by Thomson). The blithely independent and commanding vocal line soars over restless music full of bopping eighth-notes.

Mr. Meglioranza is also strong in Five Songs From William Blake. Here Thomson seems more interested in the childlike wonderment than in the mystical trappings of the Blake poems.

The soprano Kristen Watson, who sings pleasantly but with insufficiently clear diction, joins Mr. Meglioranza for Collected Poems (1959), a setting of a fanciful text by Kenneth Koch that presents Thomson in a vein that recalls his Stein operas. When he met the young Koch in the 1950s, he told all his friends that he had found a wonderful poet who wrote just like Gertrude Stein, except that "he makes sense." And Thomson relishes every word in this delightful and inventive work.

© Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company