The Arts Fuse
Caldwell Titcomb
November 16, 2009

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) began its season in Jordan Hall on November 13 with an unusual and enthralling concert that it advertised as a “Big Bang” event. In all three works on the program the emphasis was on a huge assortment of percussion instruments both familiar and exotic.

Two of the compositions are frequently mentioned but not often heard in actual performance: Ionisation (1929-31) by Edgard Varèse (1888-1965) and Ballet Mécanique (1924) by George Antheil (1900-59). These pieces reflect a widespread movement in which the traditional boundary of music was extended to embrace man’s interaction with the machine – a movement that had its peak in the dozen years after World War I.

Among its manifestations were Milhaud’s Machines Agricoles (1919), Chávez’s Horsepower ballet (1926-27), and Mosolov’s Steel Foundry (1927). Attention was repeatedly directed to transportation: the automobile (Gershwin’s An American in Paris, 1928), the railroad train (Honegger’s Pacific 231, 1923), and the airplane (Weill’s Lindbergh’s Flight, 1928-29).

Ionisation refers to electrically charged atoms, and exhibits variations of rhythmic cells. The composer said, “I was not influenced by composers as much as by natural objects and physical phenomena.” The work lasts only six minutes, but it calls for an array of some two dozen percussion instruments to be played by 13 musicians – including cymbals, bass drums, tamtams, tubular chimes, sirens, anvils, slapstick, and piano. Gil Rose led a splendid performance, in which the cymbals sounded delicately as well as loudly. There were some armful crashes on the piano, although the piece dies away.

Antheil styled himself “the bad boy of music,” and in Ballet Mécanique – his most famous work – set out to shock listeners. Actually the piece was intended to accompany a Dadaist film, but the music was twice as long as the film. In addition Antheil conceived a score using 16 player pianos, but it was found that synchronizing them was not possible. He later condensed the piece into a shorter and tamer version. Thanks to Tufts professor Paul Lehrman, the synchronization problem has been solved through computer technology. So on this occasion we got something close to the original conception and running just under a half hour.

Placed in a semicircle around the Jordan Hall stage were eight Yamaha Disklaviers (player pianos), enclosing two regular pianos, xylophones, four bass drums tipped over and played with timpani sticks, a high siren (pitch-controlled by computer), and airplane propellers (pre-recorded – aw shucks!). Suspended above was a panel with a half dozen bells and buzzers. All of this was in the hands of nine players (plus Lehrman), and Rose managed to keep everyone and everything coordinated with precision. The work does have a form, though analysts don’t agree on exactly what it is.

Like a real ballet, this piece has visual as well as aural attractions. It was fascinating to watch all those keyboards playing by themselves, not to mention a percussionist who kept running back and forth from one instrument to another. Antheil also had a joke up his sleeve. There is a flourish followed by total silence. Is that the end? No, there’s another flourish, and an even longer silence. Aha, that’s the end. No, yet more flourishes followed by ever longer silences. Eventually we get a final tutti crash, and that turns out to be the true end.

Between the Varèse and the Antheil we heard a Buddhistic cantata entitled La Koro Sutro (The Heart Sutra) written in 1972 by Lou Harrison (1917-2003). The text is in Esperanto (a language Harrison knew well), translated from the original Sanskrit, since the premiere took place at a World Esperanto Convention. He was greatly attracted to Asian musics, especially the percussive gamelan of Indonesia. He constructed what he called an “American gamelan,” including instruments made from found objects (like oxygen tanks), and he composed a host of works employing a gamelan. He incorporated scales and devices from Java and India, and blended them with Western elements.

This half-hour work, divided into nine sections, drew on the hundred or so members of the Providence Singers, prepared by Andrew Clark. In some of the sections the chorus sings in unison; others employ harmony. The third section clearly looks back at the bouncy 6/8 meter of the West’s medieval organum. The eighth section uses a harp to accompany the chorus. The final section, sung in the original Sanskrit rather than Esperanto translation, brings the piece to a glorious conclusion.

This concert was as enterprising an undertaking as the season will offer, and the result was a dazzling success. Hats off to Gil Rose and all the others involved.