Sounds Heard: Lisa Bielawa – In medias res

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NewMusicBox
Alexandra Gardner
August 31, 2010

Boston Modern Orchestra Project has long been forging ties with contemporary composers and developing new audiences for modern music in the concert hall and beyond. Every season since 2000 BMOP has hosted a composer-in-residence and in 2008 it launched house record label BMOP/sound, focusing on new and otherwise unrecorded orchestral works. For three years beginning with the 2006-07 season, composer Lisa Bielawa served as the BMOP resident composer, and her BMOP/sound CD In Medias Res draws a map through her time working with the musicians of this group.

In addition to a passion for literature, Bielawa draws inspiration from her relationships with the other musicians in her life, creating work for and about her collaborators. The musicians of BMOP proved a worthy source of ideas, as Bielawa set out creating the Synopses—short solo pieces with clever titles that showcase the talents of each core ensemble player—as well as the Double Violin Concerto for violinist/vocalist Carla Kihlstedt and violinist Colin Jacobson, and ultimately her concerto for orchestra In Medias Res, in which the musical materials from the Synopses are expertly woven together into a large-format work.

The first disc of this two-CD set is devoted to Bielawa's large-scale works; the Double Violin Concerto, In Medias Res, and two earlier works for orchestra—Roam and unfinish'd, sent. All of these compositions showcase the composer’s talent for sparkling, original orchestration, the bracing "smearing" of harmonies (as referred to in Robert Kirzinger's detailed liner notes), and the creative use of extended instrumental techniques. "Portico," the first movement of the Double Violin Concerto, is a pensive tapestry of counterpoint for the soloists with orchestra, and "Song," the second movement, features Kihlstedt singing a snippet of Goethe's Faust and at the same time playing scordatura violin. The melodic content of the third movement, "Play Within A Play," is based upon Gregorian chant settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. It prominently features Jacobson throughout, and incorporates an improvisatory section for the two soloists that melds into the finale.

The two earlier works included are inspired by passages from literature—Roam uses a small excerpt from Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, while unfinish'd, sent, which Bielawa composed for herself to sing, refers to the opening lines of Shakespeare's Richard III.

The second CD consists of fifteen Synopses, one for each core BMOP player, which were written especially for, and appear to express the personality of each musician, both in the character of the music, and in the funny, quirky titles such as, "I'm Not That Kind Of Lawyer" for double bass, and "No, No, No – Put That Down" for trombone. These are charming short compositions—though short does not mean easy! Most notable is that the very distinct musical material of each piece was built into the much larger and very substantial In Medias Res in such a way that one really does hear bits and pieces of these works within the larger framework of the concerto for orchestra. In some ways it might be useful to listen to the second disc first, in order to better understand the construction and musical backstory of In Medias Res, though admittedly this would derail the intended narrative structure of the discs, which provides flashbacks through the Synopses that gradually reveal the complete adventures behind the larger composition.

Even in the shrinking CD market and struggling orchestra world of 2010, this beautifully recorded and packaged CD set is an important addition to any collection of major 21st century works. BMOP is an orchestra that is doing things right, not only as evidenced by Bielawa's and the other recordings on the label, but also through serving as a model for fostering effective, enriching working relationships between contemporary composers and performers.