Thoroughly modern opening for new Bowdoin recital hall

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Portland Press Herald
Christopher Hyde
November 14, 2007

I wish that all the people who claim to hate "modern" music had been able to attend Saturday's concert of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project at Bowdoin College's new Studzinsky Recital Hall.

Works composed in the 21st century range from Renaissance harmonies through Romantic lyricism to the craggiest of dissonance. The writing varied in quality, but the program transfixed the large audience and held its interest throughout, appealing to the intellect and the emotions.

BMOP director Gil Rose is by far the best interpreter of contemporary music that I have heard, and he has assembled a chamber orchestra of musicians, including Portland Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Charles Dimmick, who share his passion.

In a time when modern composers are lucky to have their work run through by players whose development stopped with Brahms, Saturday's concert was a revelation. Most of the program was written by recent Bowdoin alumni, but any composer, young or old, would give his eye teeth to have his work performed that enthusiastically and well.

The showpiece of the afternoon was Elliott Schwartz's reworking of his 1977 piano concerto, entitled Chamber Concerto: Another View, commissioned by Bowdoin for the dedication of the new hall. It was brilliantly rendered by pianist Nina Ferrigno, but the piano in this piece is a commentator or instigator rather than a hero. The composer has shortened the concerto, strengthened its command structure and added a part for brass. The result is even better than the original, although it retains its 1970s flavor. Rose is recording all six of the Schwartz concertos with BMOP, but the CD will not come out until the fall of 2008, alas.

The other faculty work on the program was Vineet Shende's delightful Snarl, depicting the beast that lurks in everyone, just below the veneer of civilization. It emerges ferociously into a mystical setting, agitates the surface of the water for a time and eventually is incorporated in a sadder but wiser humanity. It is impeccably written, and the trombone snarls alone would make it worthwhile listening.

There were so many beauties in the works by younger composers that there is not space to list them all. Even a student work, Partita for Solo Orchestra, by Adam Cohen-Leadholm, an ironic pastiche of classical, pop and atonal material, had some pleasant as well as promising moments.

Most surprising was the wide difference in styles among the composers, from the tightly written virtuoso Toccata by Richard Francis to the superb horn and trombone duo, Snowflakes by Scott Vaillancourt.

The light-hearted Very Titanically by Nathan Mitchell had a marimba-like hollow sound all its own, while Run from Fear by Steven Kemper somehow combined humor and terror. A legnthy set of five sketches, Croquis du Nil by Francis Kayali, borrowed a bit from Borodin and Mussorgsky without damaging its originality. The final transcendent treatment of klezmer music was marvelous.