Strung Out: BMOP's "Strings Attached"

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Boston lowbrow
Bryce Lambert
March 9, 2010

As the BMOP nears the close of its season, Boston lowbrow was treated to–in keeping with the "instrumental" theme of their programming this year–a concert of string music with the paronomastic title "Strings Attached." Saturday night started with Stained Glass (2009), a brand new short and accessible piece by NEC grad student Nathan Ball–a smooth start to the night with its passages of shuddering violins and folky vibrato. According to the composer's statement, this first movement of a three movement work, is meant to put to sound "resonating light" in a cathedral with layered harmonic textures that ring and bend and shine, but, with its paired-down Copland-esque expansiveness and optimism, it seemed more to capture light coming across the plains, or something pastoral like that. (Ball does hail from Colorado.) I don’t think I was only one in the audience who would like to hear more.

Scott Wheeler's Crazy Weather (2004) followed, bringing us thumping bass lines (BMOP loves to bring those oft ignored or overpowered instruments to the front of the orchestra) throughout its stormy first movement. The piece cribs its title from a John Ashbery poem, which I'll quote in full here.

It's this crazy weather we've been having:
Falling forward one minute, lying down the next
Among the loose grasses and soft, white, nameless flowers.
People have been making a garment out of it,
Stitching the white of lilacs together with lightning
At some anonymous crossroads. The sky calls
To the deaf earth. The proverbial disarray
Of morning corrects itself as you stand up.
You are wearing a text. The lines
Droop to your shoelaces and I shall never want or need
Any other literature than this poetry of mud
And ambitious reminiscences of times when it came easily
Through the then woods and ploughed fields and had
A simple unconscious dignity we can never hope to
Approximate now except in narrow ravines nobody
Will inspect where some late sample of the rare,
Uninteresting specimen might still be putting out shoots,
for all we know.

The second movement was softer, more elongated–the calm after the storm the first movement finishes with after its steady "winding" approach. The second movement filled out, as the antiphonal relationship between the two sections of strings developed. The third movement "Steadily Driving" is rife with thick, rich passages that seemed to be brushed on in high impasto, and also thinner, more stringy passages. It drove towards some kind of coalescence that came with shrieking harmonics, evocative of George Crumb's electric insects.

Stephen Hartke's Alvorada, Three Madrigals (1983), another literary piece, pulls its inspiration from Portuguese poetic forms. Of course, that would go straight over anyone's head unless he read it in the program, so I won't get into Cantiga de amigos here. The second movement struck me as a lament. Its contrasting themes in conversation, brought forth ringing sonority and thick, romantic splotches. The third movement was a rich, escalatory, foot-thumping dance, with pizzicato playing that sounded like footsteps.

I probably could have passed on the performance of Milton Babbitt's Correspondences for String Orchestra and Synthesized Tape (1967) and just spent a few more minutes walking the aisles of Symphony Convenience. The music's intersecting tonal lines and corresponding points came off as clunky and more of a historical exercise in early experimental electronic music than a pleasurable concert piece. It chugged along for 10 minutes, which I'm sure was long enough for even the most ardent devotee of the avant-garde.

Betty Olivero's Neharót, Neharót (2006) featured a strong, captivating performance from violist Kim Kashkashian, for whom the piece was written. She laid down a pretty solid recording of it on an ECM CD. She's not playing with BMOP on the album, but she is on a Tigran Mansurian piece. The music had a subtle creeping quality and began with long, sustained tones played by Katherine Matasy on her accordion—almost like a drone that was echoed and played with and interspersed by the viola. It begins folky, rich, and sweet, but becomes thoroughly darker about halfway through and introduces more bass tones as well as pre-recorded Hebrew wailing, or maybe it was chanting. Either way, I could have gone without the voice on tape and stuck with Kashkashian captivating, edge-of-your-seat playing. The accordion and the string ensemble opened up in the second half and eventually, the chanting fell into the viola passages and the viola into the chanting in densely layered counterpoint. The accordion began to sound almost organ-like within these textures and the music condensed up until its soft closing.

Bartók's Divertimento for String Orchestra (1939) rounded things off, but, after an already pretty long and good concert, it wasn’t much to write home about. As Boston's best recording orchestra (and label), BMOP/sound has two new releases out. Last month they dropped Ken Ueno: Talus and this month, Dominick Argento: Jonah and the Whale.