San Diego jazz musicians made some excellent recordings in 2014, several of which could easily make an argument for the No. 1 position on this “best-of” compilation. I always agonize on how to rate them, and ultimately, it’s never an easy decision. In the end, I’ve got to go with what floored me the hardest. In that respect, I’m comfortable with the Top 2 in that order, and I could probably vacillate on the relative placement of the others until 2015. Oh, wait -- I already did that! So here are my favorite San Diego jazz recordings of last year.
Although most readily associated with the mid-20th century ascendancy of serial composition in America, Milton Babbitt’s work remains exemplary of a kind of music that even into the 21st century remains challenging and ultimately rewarding to listen to.
In this program’s balance of modern alongside old, we learn that Druckman knows how to manage foreground and background. Druckman was also alert to his place in history. It instills his music with confidence. In the notes, La Folia contributor Dan Albertson identifies similarities to Lutosławski’s orchestration and language. Dutilleux, another master of transparency across multiple layers, came to mind. That Quickening Pulse provides a feisty concert opener with dissonant fanfares.
Scott Wheeler (b. 1952) has been a continual "point of reference" for new music in Boston for decades, as composer, conductor, teacher. He has an enviable (and enviably diverse) set of teachers, including Lewis Spratlan, Arthur Berger, Olivier Messiaen, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Virgil Thomson! His own baseline aesthetic is what one might call neoclassical, but as the above list of mentors suggests, it is not some sort of throwback to the 1940s.
I met Babbitt once. We shook hands as I received an award, one student among many others on a winter afternoon a long time ago. Babbitt was a great raconteur. However, the anecdotes I heard are not suitable for print. He wrote dense articles, and yet his music can have straightforward elegance (Composition for Twelve Instruments) or humor (All Set). Truly, All Set is a snazzy 12-tone piece for jazz ensemble. Were it scored for a Pierrot ensemble it might seem bone dry, and if a jazz combo were provided atonal charts, this wouldn’t be the result.
BMOP expands the Berger discography with chamber music. The three Yeats poems require female voice plus trio of flute, clarinet and cello. Chamber Music and Septet make explicit their numbers. Berger’s notes reveal his struggles to forge an American serial style outside of Stravinsky’s influence. Chamber Music is one of the results of that development, an elegant combination which looks to Webern. Profoundly evident in these lucid works is Berger’s splendid handling of sonority.
Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of champions for contemporary music and we have a great one in our midst, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project led by Gil Rose. If Bernstein and Boulez are great ways to immerse oneself in 20th Century music then the BMOP’s recordings are a lesson in music of the 21st. They had a stunning CD this year, with the late Lou Harrison’s “La Koro Sutro,” paired with his “Suite for Violin (Gabriela Diaz) with American Gamelan.” Like most of the survivors of the 20th century survivors of the tonal vs.
Then only a couple of weeks later, Rose was back with his Boston Modern Orchestra Project in an utterly delightful, imaginatively-costumed concert version of Tobias Picker’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” perhaps a little too grown-up for some of the many youngsters in the audience, but delicious for the grown-ups themselves, full of wittily suggestive verbal and musical jokes.
10. Boston Modern Orchestra Project: Irving Fine Symphony
To celebrate Irving Fine’s centennial, Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project offered music by the composer and his Brandeis contemporaries, Arthur Berger and Harold Shapero. But the centerpiece of this May concert was Fine’s Symphony of 1962, one of the noteworthy symphonies of the twentieth century. BMOP’s spectacular performance of the work showed why that is the case. (AK)
Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Youngsters arrived in droves for the Boston premiere of Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox in Sunday afternoon’s Jordan Hall collaboration among the Boston Modern Opera Project, Odyssey Opera, and the Boston Children’s Chorus (Anthony Trecek-King, director). Albeit scrubbed of the assassination, murder, or suicide that characterizes the rest of the composer’s work in the genre, Fox is not an inevitable children’s opera.
Neither the Boston Modern Orchestra Project nor Odyssey Opera is well known for its children’s programming, so it was a particular pleasure to see the dozens of pint-size opera-goers filing into Jordan Hall excitedly on Sunday afternoon. The occasion was Tobias Picker’s family opera, “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” with a libretto by Donald Sturrock adapted from the story by Roald Dahl.
As evidenced by Heavy Weather [sic], Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s latest recording of music by Scott Wheeler, the composer really knows his way around percussive sounds. Even on pieces for strings like the title track, there is the ‘thwack’ of pizzicatos and bow slaps to help propel the proceedings. Pacing is another strong suit of Wheeler’s. The shadowy passages of City of Shadows are balanced by flurried gestures that enliven the music and help to articulate the work’s overall architecture.
The American maverick composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003), like his colleague John Cage, was a pioneering explorer of Asian music. He was also an innovative builder of instruments. He and his lifelong partner, Bill Colvig, built sets of tuned percussion instruments that they called the American gamelan. This rewarding new recording offers a captivating performance of a Harrison masterpiece for this instrument, the Suite for Violin with American Gamelan, with the fine violinist Gabriela Diaz as soloist.
“Old Granddad” sounds like something you might ask a bartender to mix up, but it’s actually what you get when you manipulate scrap metal, trash cans, and oxygen tanks into a percussion instrument played with baseball bats. Given its resemblance to a gamelan it is often also referred to as an “American Gamelan,” but I think we can all agree that “Old Granddad” is a much cooler name. It was built by Lou Harrison and his partner William Colvig and is heard throughout Harrison’s Suite for Violin with American Gamelan and La Koro Sutro.
Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) opened their season on Sunday afternoon with a typically generous and curious program, highlighting music for orchestra and electronics. Perhaps the most impressive takeaway – aside from the rich, musical diversity the afternoon’s three selections showcased – were the often almost imperceptible ways in which composers Ronald Bruce Smith, Anthony Paul de Ritis, and David Felder integrated the electronic and acoustic elements in their music.
Some instruments, once you’ve glimpsed them, stay with you. I’ll never forget my brief encounter with the emormous, room-filling RCA Mark II synthesizer, the first of its kind, built in the 1950s and bursting with period charisma, thanks to its towering stacks of vacuum-tube components and endless rows of knobs and dials. Its aura was so redolent of the early-Cold War era, it seemed that if composers like Milton Babbitt and Vladimir Ussachevsky had not kept it so busy, then maybe, just maybe, we might have beaten the Soviets into space.
The best music deal in town this holiday weekend might have been “Surround Sound,” the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s concert Sunday afternoon at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.
One of BMOP’s most memorable concerts of the last several years took place in 2009, a Jordan Hall performance that culminated in George Antheil’s brutalist percussion symphony, the “Ballet Mécanique.” But Antheil’s paean to pounding — a prime specimen of Machine Age interwar modernism — was preceded by another percussion work that seemed to drift in from an altogether distant cultural universe, tranquil and sun-drenched: California of the early 1970s.
Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) is the composer that many love to hate. He of course has his committed defenders, but they are a distinct minority. My opening statement is of course harsh, and indeed anyone who actually met the man was impressed by his great geniality, erudition, and wacky humor. He was the classic eccentric professor, and in many ways a true genius. Babbitt did have a vision of music that was both rooted in the circumstances of his era and deeply personal.