The Arts Fuse
Jonathan Blumhofer
January 29, 2012

Leave it to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) to completely revitalize the concept of a concerto concert. This past Friday night at Jordan Hall, the orchestra, conducted by music director Gil Rose, presented a thoroughly energizing and invigorating concert of five concerti written by composers born between 1923 and 1979.

Billed as Strange Bedfellows: Unexpected Concertos, the program featured concertos for, respectively, viola, electric guitar, mandolin, theremin, and horn.

If nothing else, what these pieces by Luciano Berio (1925–2003), Keeril Makan (b. 1972), Avner Dorman (b. 1976), Andrew Norman (b. 1979), and Eric Chasalow (b. 1955) demonstrated was the breadth of expression to be found in contemporary (and near-contemporary) music. Though there were certainly differences in quality between the compositions, all of the pieces fulfilled the primary requirement of a concerto: they showed off the capabilities of the solo instrument in question, often memorably so.

To open the evening, violist John Stulz joined Mr. Rose and a reduced BMOP ensemble of nine players in Berio's Chemins II su Sequenza VI (1967). As its title suggests, the basic musical material of Chemins II (the title translates into "roads" or "paths") derives from Berio's Sequenza VI (also of 1967), a hyper-virtuosic piece for unaccompanied viola. In Chemins II, the solo part features almost continuous quadruple-stop tremolo patterns that are echoed and altered by the accompanying ensemble.

The mature Berio's aesthetic is, to say the least, complex. In place of melodic lines or even recognizable harmonic progressions, his music often draws attention to textural changes and recurring musical gestures. So it was on Friday evening. Mr. Stulz's performance of the daunting solo part was beyond reproach. He navigated the rapid passagework that makes up much of the score without seeming to break a sweat, and he brought some nice melancholic sentiment to its subdued, closing pages. The BMOP players and Mr. Rose were with him every step of the way, energetically articulating the score's kaleidoscopic colors.

Keeril Makan's Dream Lightly (2008), for electric guitar and orchestra, followed. Mr. Makan's score, which requires the guitarist (Seth Josel) to play harmonics for almost of its entire length, made for a very nice transition from the Berio: in place of the busy textures of the prior work, this piece unfolded slowly and ethereally. Its basic form is straightforward: the first perhaps third consists of some fascinating timbral combinations—sustained guitar tones echoed by string harmonics, gentle percussion figurations, and the like—before breaking into a Copland-esque melody. After building to a heterophonic climax on this tune, the sustained, opening tones return and lead to an ambiguous conclusion.

Dream Lightly was easily the most haunting work on the program, even if it was the least flashy. Much of the credit for this is due to Mr. Josel, whose performance of the solo part was sensitively nuanced. BMOP and Mr. Rose again proved ideal accompanists, enunciating the score's architecture with clarity and purpose. Particularly notable in their reading was the dramatic arrival of the work’s multilayered zenith: it positively glowed. Mr. Makan, who teaches at MIT, was on hand to share in the warm ovation that his piece received. I look forward to hearing more from him in the years to come.

Rounding out the evening's first half was Avner Dorman's Mandolin Concerto (2006). Like Dream Lightly, Mr. Dorman's score basically falls into three sections, with a fast middle part that is meant to evoke Middle Eastern folk music. Mr. Dorman received his doctorate from Juilliard where he studied with the composer John Corigliano; in the present concerto, he displays an adroit handling of competing musical styles reminiscent of his mentor.

However, in this piece I also encountered the same problem I find in some of Mr. Corigliano's music, namely, a shallowness of musical content (albeit nicely dressed up). This was especially true of the foot-stomping folk tune sections. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for composers incorporating folk music into their work, and I have no objections to tuneful, engaging music that audiences enjoy. My problem lies with Mr. Dorman's use of such materials in this score. The musical language he utilizes here is basically tonal but with some dissonant colorings; in fact, there are moments that seem to recall the Hungarian compositions of Brahms and Liszt. But those Romantics worked within a wholly tonal tradition, and the folk tunes (or, as they sometimes were, faux-folk tunes) they employed fit into that musical vocabulary. Mr. Dorman is (and contemporary composers, in general, are) writing in the shadow of Bartòk and Ligeti (among others), composers who utilized folk material in a generally "tonal" vein but with a rougher, more authentic edge than their 19th-century counterparts. In this context, samplings of clean, diatonic, folk-sounding music often come across to these ears as sanitized, trite, and not a little silly, and that was my response to parts of this Mandolin Concerto.

It wasn't all bad, though: there were some thoroughly enjoyable moments in the piece, including the closing pages in which the soloist is instructed to untune the mandolin's strings and play arpeggios with a bottleneck. And mandolinist Avi Avital, for whom Mr. Dorman composed the concerto, was phenomenal. Despite any musical drawbacks I feel the piece might have, it's a true showpiece for the mandolin, and Mr. Avital is more than up to its challenges. His playing of the slow, lyrical sections was beautifully phrased, while in the faster music (which, true to the "neo-Baroque" style in which Mr. Dorman wrote the piece, contains extended sections of soloist and orchestra playing together), his performance was a marvel of flying fingers and assured musicianship.

After intermission, we had the most unexpected instrumental combination of the evening: Air (2011) by Andrew Norman (BMOP's new composer-in-residence) for theremin and orchestra. What is a theremin? It is one of the first electronic instruments, invented by the Russian scientist Leon Theremin in 1928. The instrument itself consists of a wooden box containing two radio oscillators with two antennae, one proceeding vertically (which controls pitch), the other horizontally (which controls dynamics). It is played by what looks to be pulling notes out thin air: the player places his or her right hand in between the antennae to manipulate the oscillations and create various pitches, which are then amplified through loudspeakers. The sound is akin to an electric violin crossed with a synthesizer. (Of note, the instrument is featured prominently in the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," as well as numerous 1950s sci-fi film scores.)

Mr. Norman's Air, like the two compositions preceding his, is basically in a ternary form but with a cadenza for theremin around its midpoint. His handling of the orchestra has its ear-catching moments (the extended use of string glissandi, for instance and the writing for percussion over the score's closing pages), though, as in the Mandolin Concerto, there was a thinness to the musical material that left me somewhat unsatisfied.

Still, the performance was, on the whole, superb. Dalit Warshaw, composer and thereminist-extraordinaire, took on the lyrical solo part. She brought a very nice shape to Air's opening and closing sections and seemed to have a lot of fun with its involved cadenza. BMOP and Mr. Rose embraced the general oddness of the score’s character with endearing enthusiasm.

Born in 1955, Eric Chasalow was by default the (living) grand old man on Friday's program, represented by his Horn Concerto (2008). Not that it needed the help but coming, as it did, after Mr. Dorman's and Mr. Norman's contributions, his Concerto was utterly bracing. Mr. Chasalow is most widely known for his work in electronic music, though he's an excellent composer for acoustic instruments as well. This Concerto, which he wrote for his longtime friend, Bruno Schneider, falls into four movements, with the slow third movement standing as its expressive core.

Mr. Chasalow's compositional experience and maturity showed in the opening of the Concerto's concise first movement: a brief, energetic essay that begins with driving, colorful orchestral figurations answered by punctuations from the solo horn. Though his harmonic language in the Concerto is atonal, there is a directness to the musical materials he employs that was lacking in the previous two scores. The two slow middle movements form a nice respite and gave Mr. Schneider ample opportunities to show off the horn’s many different colors. In the finale, the energy of the first movement returns, as, indeed, does some of its musical material: there is a recap of the first movement's opening section that leads to a surprisingly introspective close.

Mr. Schneider and BMOP were at their best in this piece, reveling in Mr. Chasalow's vigorous and engaging instrumental writing. My only complaint about the piece is that I would have liked to hear more lyrical horn solos—the section at the end of the piece was beautiful, but that was really the only bit of its kind in the score. Still, as complaints go, it's a small matter.

The next BMOP performance at Jordan Hall is Tan Dun's Water Passion on April 6th. If you haven't checked out this group lately, you should do it then: they are one of the city's—and the nation's—most important musical treasures.