A primer on reinventing the concerto

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The Boston Globe
David Weininger, Globe Correspondent
November 6, 2007

"Re-Inventions," the opening concert of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's 11th season, promised "glorious and subversive music for keyboards." While none of the four pieces heard Friday night fully lived up to either adjective, they did present individual and strikingly resourceful ideas on how the concerto, a timeworn musical form, could be reimagined for the present.

Things got underway with Elliott Schwartz's Chamber Concerto III: Another View, a reworking of a 30-year-old piece that was having its first hearing. Written for an ensemble of 12 instruments and piano (Nina Ferrigno), it is built from the repetition and extension of single pitches and develops in a single unbroken arc. Perhaps its most impressive feature is the spiky coloring and wide dynamic range Schwartz gets through the skillful deployment of a small group of players.

Anthony Davis's Wayang V for piano and orchestra was getting its second BMOP performance. (The first was in 2002.) It's a heterogeneous piece with roots in jazz, minimalism, and Balinese gamelan music. It alternates segments of driving polyrhythms with ruminative sections that offer the pianist room to improvise. Davis himself was the soloist, and his improvised cadenza at the end of the piece sounded like some strange cross-pollination of Bartok and Bud Powell.

Michael Colgrass's Side by Side was written for Joanne Tong, who played both harpsichord and piano. (Both were amplified.) The piece is built from their contrasting sonorities: the elegant harpsichord versus a heavier, somewhat clumsy piano, whose strings were deadened by rubber mutes. Colgrass flips between the two sound worlds like a TV watcher idly changing channels, and the orchestra's music changes accordingly. The dichotomy gradually disappears as the piece progresses, the two worlds brought into uneasy reconciliation.

The final work, David Rakowski's Piano Concerto, was also having its world premiere, with soloist Marilyn Nonken. It was the most conventional in form - in four separate movements - yet also the most fully satisfying work of the evening. It begins with a single note (A) plucked on the strings of the piano, and its repetition gives the first movement its initial jolt of energy. That plucked note opens all four movements, which comprise an adagio, with some gorgeous wind playing; a rhythmically complex scherzo; and a sweeping finale that recalls the first movement. Like Colgrass, Rakowski has the soloist use a second instrument - in this case a toy piano - though much more sparingly. The orchestral writing is wonderfully varied, and the soloist's part is both virtuosic and lyrical throughout.

Each of the four soloists was superb, and Nonken was outstanding. BMOP, under Gil Rose, gave the kind of vital, secure performances we have come almost to take for granted. May they remain glorious and subversive for years to come.

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.