On Friday, May 28, in Jordan Hall, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, a.k.a. BMOP, presented its last concert of the season -— five works composed in the past 25 years, two of which featured the great baritone Sanford Sylvan. BMOP’s past season had featured concerts showcasing groups within the orchestra (strings in “Strings Attached,” percussion and keyboards in the “Big Bang” concert, winds in “Band in Boston”). For this concert, deploying the full orchestra, BMOP presented works by four living composers, all in attendance, and Orchestra Piece by Leon Kirchner, who died last fall. All, conducted with precision and flair by BMOP’s Artistic Director, Gil Rose, were given excellent performances.
At the pre-concert talk three of the evening’s composers, Steven Stucky (b. 1949), Martin Boykan (b. 1931), and Kati Agoc (b. 1975), discussed the history and geneses of their works. Mr. Stucky remarked that when he was growing up in Texas, he learned about Aaron Copland, who was “both living and a composer. It gave me hope that it was possible to do both.” Mr. Stucky spoke compellingly of the poets whose words he set for his American Muse for Baritone and Orchestra, written for Mr. Sylvan 11 years ago. Ms. Agoc talked about her father leaving Hungary in exile in 1956, and how her leaving Canada, twice, echoed his feelings of geographic rupture, represented vividly in her piece Requiem Fragments. Mr. Boykan explained that his four-movement piece, with baritone in the final movement, metaphorically represented morning, noon, evening, and night. Each composer was a eloquent salesman.
For someone who rarely attends concerts devoted to contemporary music, I was surprised at how thoroughly enjoyable, accessible, and quite moving all of this music was. I repeatedly thought how I’d like to hear each piece again, from Anthony de Ritis’s (b. 1968) lovely Legerdemain through Kati Agoc’s two-year-old hypnotic Requiem Fragments. Ms. Agoc explained that she was asked to write a six-minute piece for an orchestra’s final concert. Her odd task was “to write about what Canada sounds like.” Now a minute or so longer than its original, it is, in Ms. Agoc’s words, “music of expatriates…a diminutive piece…that’s finally allowed to flower.”
Leon Kirchner’s colorful Orchestra Piece (Music for Orchestra II) owes its life to celebration the BSO celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 70th birthday in 1988. Eight colleagues of Bernstein were asked to write short variations on Bernstein’s New York, New York. The miniature took on a life of its own, growing into this one movement 10-minute piece.
Sanford Sylvan, erstwhile Boston super-singer who recently moved to Montreal to teach (at McGill), has, I believe, never given less than a stellar, moving performance, whether his venue was opera or recital. No singer I know communicates words more clearly — in any language — or with more innate intelligence. It’s as if a poem was just waiting, sometimes for a century, to be sung by Mr. Sylvan. Before he sings, even if it’s for several minutes, he stands, eyes closed, utterly still, until he opens his music. He has the audience transfixed before he sings a note, and completely under his spell from that moment on. Familiar texts become clarified, as if they were written for the sole purpose of being sung by Mr. Sylvan.
The evening’s highlight, Stucky’s song cycle, American Muse, For Baritone and Orchestra (1999) began as a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a piece for Mr. Sylvan. Set to four poems, it begins with “American Lights, Seen from Off Abroad” by John Berryman, couplets perfectly matched to the jazzy accompaniment replete with a saxophone and a police whistle. The very short “Buffalo Bill’s” by e. e. cummings was full of humor and multiple-syllable repetitions until its final “how do you like your blue-eyed boy Mister Death.” “Delaware Water Gap” by A.R. Ammons ended no less darkly — “a continent crowded loose, upwarping against its suasions, we, you and I, to be drowned, now so sustained and free.” Stuckey admits he set Walt Whitman’s “I hear America Singing” because, “even now, we can hear American singing.” Mr. Sylvan sang beautifully throughout, and in the last movement of Martin Boyken’s Symphony for Baritone and Orchestra, (whose precursor for having a fourth movement with voice was Mahler’s Fourth Symphony) he added a touch of the sublime in “To Sleep” by John Keats.
Throughout this evening, the orchestra played remarkably well. The violins were most impressive, the flute and horns excellent, and the harpist, Ina Zdorovetchi, her usual excellent self. The enthusiastic audience, full of prominent musicians, seemed to love what they were hearing.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.