It was probably the touchy economy, in part, that inspired Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project to build concerts this season around subsections of the orchestra rather than the full group; on Saturday, it was works for strings. And the orchestra’s most homogeneous group, its lyricism and opulence self-reinforcing, made for pretty classy thrift.
Nathan Ball’s Stained Glass was a world premiere. Aiming to conjure a cathedral’s space, Ball, a graduate student at the New England Conservatory of Music, achieved a smooth cinematic surface. The piece was adroit and expressively efficient with its interlocking motives, even if its influences - John Adams and Aaron Copland, mainly - were perhaps given starring rather than supporting roles. The final cadence was the highlight: a deep, organ-like physically palpable shift of sound.
Scott Wheeler’s Crazy Weather (revised from his 2004 Wakefield Doubles) showed more immediate individuality, leaning on its composer’s lapidary imagination. Each of its three movements opened with a vivid sonic image - basses snapping at boiling counterpoint, a snow-blind, high chorale - before wandering into diffuse mazes, then making an escape to another striking idea: an intermittent aurora of harmonics in the opening, a witty spill of pizzicato at the close.
Stephen Hartke’s 1983 Alvorada was more locked into formal routine. The first movement spun a forcefully soulful line while its sweetly tonal accompaniment tangled itself into contradictions - and so did the second. The redundancy imbalanced the piece such that the rhythmic finale’s coda came off as abrupt.
The ensemble, having increased in precision and confidence throughout the first half, hit its stride in Milton Babbitt’s Correspondences: 10 players, interacting with state-of-the-art (circa 1967) electronics. Babbitt’s atonal forms are so hermetic they can seem formless, but the group brought out the music’s sparks of fierce expression, a charm bracelet of concentrated fragments.
Performances - especially that of viola soloist Kim Kashkashian - also carried Betty Olivero’s Neharót, Neharót, Middle Eastern music of mourning expanded into a catalog of lament. Kashkashian’s rich cantillation compelled; Olivero avoids stasis with dramatic coups - an incursion of prerecorded singing, a lush, discordant Monteverdi deconstruction. It’s a high-performance vehicle for a soloist and ensemble that can (and did) sustain its intensity.
And then came Béla Bártok’s 1940 Divertimento: one more piece than the concert really needed, but, then again, such overabundance is customary for Rose and BMOP. The rendition, a hair on the easygoing side, made Bártok’s rustic energies seem almost casually potent.