During China’s Cultural Revolution, one of the world’s oldest civilizations tore itself apart. The estimated 70 million deaths that resulted have touched the lives of just about everyone in the country and many around the world.
One story from China’s remote Xiaoxiang region tells of a widow who avenges the death of her husband by tormenting his killer, a local communist official. Devoid of any legal means of seeking justice, she sat in the forest behind the official’s house every night for months and wailed like a ghost. Both went insane.
The tragic story is the basis for Lei Liang’s Xiaoxiang, a concerto for saxophone and orchestra, heard in its U.S. premiere Friday night in Jordan Hall by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
Liang, a composer known for his ear-stretching soundscapes, has drawn from Chinese history as source material. His Bamboo Lights, premiered by the Callithumpian Consort last year, is a memorial to his family members who died in China’s civll wars.
Xiaoxiang began as a piece for saxophone and electronics, but Liang has since adapted it for orchestra. The acoustic effects do nothing to dull the immediacy of the story.
The work is a rhapsody of menacing and eerie sound effects. Bass strings are snapped against the fingerboard, muted trumpets growl, and the harpist hammers the strings with mallets. With bold presence, saxophonist Chien-Kwan Lin answered with bent tones, hard-tongued echo effects, and screaming high notes. To open, he arched long shrieking wails on the instrument’s mouthpiece, symbolic, Liang noted, of the widow’s inability to express herself. Hints of melody pepper the final movement, where Lin and the woodwinds deftly traded quick-turning phrases in close imitation. Gil Rose conducted the BMOP orchestra in a shimmering reading.
The concert opened with Accumulated Traces, a taut yet terrifying work by Binna Kim, winner of this year’s BMOP/ NEC Composition Competition.
Running through its blocks of earth-shattering sonorities is a Korean folksong that Kim’s grandmother sang to her when she was a child. Accumulated Traces is not a sentimental work. Rather, it shows the composer coming to terms with the Korean War through her grandmother’s experiences as a child during that time.
The muscular phrases that thread this piece branch from short statements. In its central section, the BMOP strings played low, mournful phrases, picking up the winds and upper strings incrementally as the music progressed. The sound crested into a solid wall of sound. Tying the work together was the percussion section, which performed the thundering motives inspired by Korean Samul nori drumming with whip-crack precision.
Donald Crockett’s Blue Earth (2002), also heard Friday night, turns away from the horrors of war to reflect upon environmental themes. BMOP premiered the California-based composer’s Viola Concerto last year and will record Blue Earth this week for an upcoming release.
The five movements of this sinfonia concertante, as Crockett calls it, evoke the flight of birds in migration and the sweeping winds of the sea. Waves of dissonance, as if warning of future environmental disasters, break the spacious harmonic language at the conclusion. The result is a thoughtful and moving pastoral for the planet.
On the whole, Blue Earth teems with life. The solo instruments—violin, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon—engage in jerky riffs and energetic runs with each other the full ensemble. Eventually, these individual conversations unify into a unified voice. The stentorian brass section punctuated the orchestral shout choruses with stinging chords, the trumpets adding the finishing touches with expertly-placed high notes.
The loveliest moments came in the second movement. Its play-on-words title, “Four Winds,” featured solo oboe, flute, clarinet, and bassoon floating soft phrases. To answer, strings supplied a thin harmonic veil that covered the space like sheen of rain.
Rounding out the program was Steven Stucky’s infrequently heard Concerto for Orchestra. Completed in 1986, his first foray into the genre (Stucky won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his Second Concerto for Orchestra) has only been heard a handful of times since its premiere by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti.
Listening to this piece is like experiencing the best influences of twentieth-century music. Jagged rhythms à la Bartók fuse with precision-cut Stravinskian phrases, and the work’s commodious textures recall Lutosławski’s own Concerto for Orchestra.
But beyond that, Stucky’s is a work with a grand narrative arch filled with bracing and fiery passagework for each section of the orchestra. The second movement is lugubrious. Earthy murmurs and glissandi grow from the low strings into glistening sonorities in the orchestra’s upper ranges. Solos in flute, French horn, and English horn, with their well-placed cadences, peaked out from the cloudy texture like rays of sunshine. The hulking, angular brass statements that close the first movement return in the finale to bring the piece full circle.
Rose, leading with deliberate and hammer-like gestures, pulled spectacular playing from the orchestra, making strong advocacy for a piece that deserves to be heard more often.
For their season finale, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project will perform music by Irving Fine, Harold Shapero, and Arthur Berger 8 p.m. May 16 at Jordan Hall.