Women's works illuminated by Boston Modern Orchestra Project

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The Boston Globe
Matthew Guerrieri, Globe Staff
December 13, 2010

A chamber-size contingent of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and director Gil Rose visited Wellesley College on Saturday (part of a weekend tour that also stopped at Bowdoin College and Tufts University) with an all-female-composer program called "Luminous Noise." Such a deliberate spotlight is, hopefully, not quite the necessary corrective to a predominantly male compositional culture that it would have been all too recently, but it still invited consideration of what it does — and does not — mean to be a female composer in the world of classical music.

Stylistically, the composers were a divergent trio. In Jenny Olivia Johnson's Dollar Beers (Redondo Beach '96), six players hypnotically circled a slow, catchy pop-ballad progression, while soprano Lucy McVeigh intoned casually enigmatic lyrics. Johnson, who has studied music’s role as a trigger for traumatic memories, conjured such echoes, acoustically and electronically layering the sound into a gorgeous and ominous haze.

Chen Yi's 1992 octet Sparkle was in a skilled, standard new-music vein, handfuls of shimmering dissonance. But other works drawing on Chinese sources showed more diverse accents. Her Suite for Cello and Chamber Winds (cellist David Russell providing soulfully gossamer playing) rotated through varied approaches: deft imitations of Chinese instruments, decorous Western-style harmonizations, modernist deconstructions.

Wu Yu — inspired, Chen said, by Chinese country bands' enthusiastic imprecision — reworked that inexactitude into contemporary-sounding tangles of clustered heterophony. Judith Weir's 14-player Tiger Under the Table also undermined ideas of ensemble, its competing manners — jagged bass lines, slushy strings, jazzy trumpet, a heavy nudge of old-time swing — jostling for position without quite finding common ground. (Rose and the players, perpetuating BMOP's high, accomplished standard, were particularly good in this pair, mixing easy virtuosity with bracing charm.)

If there was a common thread, it was a sidestepping of the customary classical-music dialectic, that pattern of posited contrasts resolving into cathartic unity found throughout the bulk of the classical canon. Johnson and Weir subverted the framework, Johnson eschewing oppositional form for linear single-mindedness, Weir puckishly leaving her oppositions opposed. Chen alternated works that hewed to the canonic pattern — Sparkle, the finale of Wu Yu — with more freewheeling games of hide-and-seek between authentic and invented vocabularies.

The composers' gender still contrasted with that canon, which was (and remains) a mostly male list. But the trio's strategies were as much representative of genre — Johnson's post-minimal atmospherics, Chen's erudite eclecticism, Weir's absurdist theater — as gender, evidence, perhaps, of expanding categories. The canon might finally be catching up.