Let summer officially begin! Boston's last major "regular season" orchestra, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), closed the books on its 2011-12 season on Friday night with a program of music inspired by Greece and Greek mythology. Dubbed "Apollo's Fire," BMOP presented a mix of older contemporary fare (read, all-20th century) featuring pieces by Nikos Skalkottas, Elliott Carter, Igor Stravinsky, and Lewis Spratlan, all conducted by music director Gil Rose.
Each half of the concert was anchored by a work for string orchestra, beginning with selections from Skalkottas's Greek Dances (1936). Skalkottas wrote thirty-six of these Dances, which were published in three sets: Friday's performance consisted of selections from the first and third sets. On the whole, they are vigorous, engaging miniatures that recall similar works by Bartók, though they're perhaps a bit less authentic: Skalkottas smoothed out some of rougher folk elements and even created a couple of idiomatic pastiche movements, so they're a bit closer in spirit to Brahms's Hungarian Dances than, say, Bartók's Romanian Dances.
Regardless, Mr. Rose led an energetic performance of them on Friday. The BMOP strings sounded in fine form, gamely catching Skalkottas's syncopated and heavily accented rhythms. The slow fourth dance, Arkadikos, featured a lovely viola melody, which stood in nice relief against the bustling energy of the surrounding movements.
Mr. Carter's 65-year old ballet, The Minotaur (1947), followed the Skalkottas. For those only familiar with Mr. Carter's modernist work since the 1950s, The Minotaur can come as quite a shock: written in the shadow of Stravinsky and influence by his teacher, Nadia Boulanger, the score is busily diatonic and wholly neo-Classical (it even ends on a major triad!). Commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein, it is based on the myth of King Minos and Pasiphaë, though Carter evidently had in mind the horrors of the Holocaust when writing music for some of the sacrificial scenes. Formally, the ballet falls into ten discreet sections, several of which are connected without a break.
Mr. Rose again led a performance that emphasized the music's rhythmic energy, though one might have wished for bit more textural clarity from time to time (yes, the mature Mr. Carter's enthusiasm for active instrumental layers is on full display in this early work). Still, this is a fascinating side of Mr. Carter's musical personality to hear, at once backward- and forward-looking, and it was good to experience the committed BMOP performance.
After intermission, BMOP's strings and Mr. Rose turned to Stravinsky's Apollon musagète. Stravinsky wrote Apollo (as he later called it) for George Balanchine between 1927 and 1928, and revised it in 1947 (the revised version was performed on Friday); the plot of the ballet follows the visit of three muses, Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Terpsichore, to the god Apollo.
Mr. Rose and the Orchestra were perfectly at home in Stravinsky's neo-Classical idiom, which here is strongly redolent of the French Baroque. The first scene, with its dotted rhythms depicting the birth of Apollo, was given a stately reading, while concertmaster Charles Dimmick's solo at the beginning of the second scene (representing Apollo before the arrival of the muses) was all nobility and grace. A few intonation discrepancies in the "Coda" notwithstanding, this was about as fine a performance of Stravinsky's obscure ballet as one might expect to hear; BMOP and Mr. Rose certainly made the case that this music ought to be better known.
It was the program's last piece, Lewis Spratlan's Apollo and Daphne Variations, that proved the biggest conundrum of the evening. Mr. Spratlan's 1987 score, whose program follows the pursuit of the nymph Daphne by the god Apollo, begins with an extended, dissonant introduction that takes up various strands of the Variations' theme. When that theme arrives, it's rather jarring: a simple, diatonic tune that could pass for the melody of a late-19th century parlor song. A succession of ten variations follow, some closely mirroring the harmonic vocabulary and structure of the theme, others more diffuse in style and character. The piece ends with a restatement of the theme before fading to silence.
Overall, it's a score that features plenty of activity for everybody onstage, though I didn’t find that it necessarily added up to an entirely rewarding whole. To be sure, there were memorable moments: the unexpected violin trill that casts a pall on the piano's initial presentation of the theme; some nice pizzicato thuds in the basses in one of the early variations; a sonorous, Mahlerian section for the brass; and the resonant combination of harp and piano in the Coda. And there's not much to complain about in Mr. Spratlan's handling of the orchestra: it is expert and idiomatic, offers opportunities for everyone to contribute (and to sound good at while they’re doing it –- especially pianist Linda Osborn-Blaschke's playing of the all-important theme).
So why my hesitation? Well, in short I wasn't convinced by Mr. Spratlan's juxtaposition of competing harmonic and stylistic elements. Certainly this can be done successfully –- just think of Leonard Bernstein, John Corigliano, or William Bolcom, all composers who excel (or excelled) in utilizing eclectic materials; and, indeed, there are passages in the Variations that recall Mr. Corigliano's Symphony no. 1, written around the same time.
But the expressive purpose that results from, say, Mr. Corigliano's handling of such materials in his Symphony is lacking in Mr. Spratlan's combinations here. One moment there's an atonal brass chorale, the next there's a lush melody that wouldn’t be out of place in an old Hollywood film score, while a little later on there are scurrying string figures a la Prokofiev –- and all to what end, exactly? Ultimately, there's a "look at my technique" quality to the writing that doesn't match the musical content and that seems to be striving to be all things to all listeners, rather than making a compelling case for itself, that left me frustrated.
On Friday, though, I was in the minority: BMOP's audience (which is arguably the best-behaved in Boston) rewarded Mr. Spratlan, a spry 72, with a lengthy ovation. Perhaps the Variations are just a piece that require repeated hearings, and that will be easy once BMOP/Sound releases their all-Spratlan album in a few months. Until then, we can count our lucky stars that we've got BMOP to share this music (and so much more) with us, and look forward in anticipation to 2012-13.