Audiophile Audition
Steven Ritter
October 28, 2010

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is currently represented in the catalog on about 33 releases, most well-worth investigation by those interested in the trends of contemporary music, and good contemporary music at that. It is time they turned their attention to one of the most misunderstood and really neglected composers: Virgil Thomson—critic, pianist, organist, and often vitriolic pundit. At least that is what the composers of the atonalist school thought; though no one was completely free from his often dead-on and yet highly provocative verbal barrages.

His music is by and large conservative, but not always, as some of the work on this disc show. It is nice to have a disc largely devoted to his extremely lyrical vocal music, benefiting from his years as an assistant to the Harvard Glee Club. The Feast of Love is based on the early (second- or fourth-century) texts called the Vigil of Venus for baritone and small orchestra. The work has odd keys and mixed cross-meters, though I doubt many listeners will perceive this from the hearing. Collected Poems is of a lighter vein, written for soprano and baritone and based on the work of poet Kenneth Koch. Five Songs from William Blake uses Songs of Innocence and of Experience as the source, including the popular “Tiger! Tiger!” which uses exciting and visceral rhythms to propel Blake’s words. The other songs employ bitonality and a continuing use of rhythmic interplay that keeps the songs alive in the ears of the listener—one of the finest song settings, period.

A Solemn Music and A Joyful Fugue were composed in sequence, one completing the other, a superbly inspiring and uplifting tandem that should be played much more often. With Three Pictures for Orchestra we enter into a realm that is not typically Thomson but no less involved and interesting for that. Originally composed as separate commissions, the three components— The Seine at Night, Wheat Field at Noon, and Sea Piece with Birds—use a large orchestra and are examples of true “impressionism” without necessarily making use of the techniques of the French School. Thomson himself meant them as depictions of preconceived ideas, as he mentions these thoughts in the pages of the scores. The technical elements behind them are essentially the twelve notes of the chromatic scale arranged as four mutually exclusive triads, and subsequent variants on this. It might be Thomson’s greatest score (even though it wasn’t intended as one piece per se) and contains music of unearthly beauty that is quite different from most other things he wrote.

The BMOP is a large group that plays stunningly well and is certainly into these scores. Sound is vivid and non-imposing, though close. I enjoyed this thoroughly, and so will you.

- Steven Ritter