The Boston Modern Orchestra Project called its program of five "unexpected concertos" at Jordan Hall Friday "Strange Bedfellows." None (well, almost none) of the music induced slumber, however. Created for an odd array of solo instruments (viola, electric guitar, theremin, mandolin, French horn) accompanied by instrumental ensembles of various size and composition, the works prodded at the frontiers of traditional concerto form. Electronic and acoustic sounds engaged in conversation - sometimes in rancorous argument - across the centuries, forcing us to rethink this venerable genre. BMOP's artistic director Gil Rose deftly conducted the eclectic program with his customary avant-garde calm.
Of the five composers, only one is dead: prolific Italian Luciano Berio (1925-2003). But Berio's music still sounds innovative and fresh. His "Chemins II su Sequenza VI" (1967) explodes with nervous energy in a quadruple-stop shifting chord played by the viola soloist and imitated by the nine other players. Violist John Stulz attacked the music with taut control and poetic intensity. Only the final measures provide the brooding melancholy more commonly associated with the instrument.
"Dream Lightly" (2008) by Keeril Makan also challenges traditional expectations, in this case for the electric guitar, played with soulful delicacy by Seth Josel. Makan creates a pleasant sonic haze built on harmonic overtones of strummed strings, echoed by moody effects in the orchestra. Metallic sonorities dominate, with slow and subtle shifts of color, reminiscent of the music of Arvo Part.
Avner Dorman's 2006 concerto for a distant relation of the electric guitar - the mandolin - followed. Here, haunting Middle Eastern harmonies invade Baroque structures. Avi Avital was an enthralling and sensitive soloist, although at moments the accompanying string orchestra overwhelmed the fragile mandolin.
After intermission came Andrew Norman's eerie "Air: For Theremin and Orchestra" (2011) and Eric Chasalow's 2008 Horn Concerto. French horn player Bruno Schneider did what he could with the skimpy solo part in Chasalow's introspective and intellectual piece, built around obsessively "stuck" notes.
But Schneider was following a tough act: theremin soloist Dalit Warshaw, resplendent in a red-and-black dress that resembled a Mondrian painting. The theremin's otherworldly sounds (often heard in sci-fi film scores) are controlled by gentle hand movements around two antennas and amplified in a speaker. Warshaw's poker-faced manipulation of this device was a work of performance art. Norman's music had its serious High Art moments, but even members of the string orchestra couldn't suppress smiles at the instrument's feline whining and growling.