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.
MacArthur Fellow Anthony Davis (b. 1951) is probably best known for his explosive political operas (X: The Life and Times of Malcom X is the most notorious). His music has as its formative influences 60s avant-grade jazz figures like Charlie Haden (his Liberation Orchestra with Carla Bley) and Sun Ra, updated with more contemporary characteristics like minimalist repetition and non-Western ethnic techniques.
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.
Deeply drawn to the theater and to the theatrical, Lewis Spratlan (born 1940) is best known for his opera Life Is a Dream (it won the 2000 Pulitzer) and has written several other major works for stage production, though his interest in musical drama also extends to his purely instrumental compositions. My favorite of these is his clever, entertaining, sometimes hilarious 1986 sextet When Crows Gather, recorded, with three other very enjoyable (and also extravagantly uninhibited showpieces) on Albany 725 (July/Aug 2005).
How did composers react to the violence of The First World War? In the last show in our series on the Great War, we’re listening to the sounds that emerged from its ashes. In Vienna concert halls and New York jazz clubs, from Maurice Ravel’s piano elegies to Igor Stravinsky’s explosive symphonies, we’re coursing through the composers who defined a modern era, reacting to the terrible violence of total warfare through art.
Spratlan’s musical version of A Summer’s Day (2008), commissioned and premiered by BMOP, has the instant nostalgia of a strongly evoked, specific time and place. His “Pre-Dawn Nightmare” includes fragments of the theme song to The Sopranos; “At the Computer” evokes the sounds of an already-obsolete desktop machine. And the connective tissue of the piece, the folk-like tune presented at the outset (“Hymn to the Summer Solstice”), is a memory of summer romanticized into an abstraction.
...we have a fascinating dichotomy here, a piece composed by a white expatriate American premiered by an all-African-American orchestra in the composer's native land.
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Of all the contemporary jazz artists who have crossed-over to classical orchestral music and other large-scale forms, Anthony Davis is certainly among the most prominent, with multiple compositions, performances and albums going back decades. He also is one of the most original, with a style of his very own. I consider him among a small handful of the very best jazz composers working in classical configurations.
Lee Hyla, an American composer whose work marries the formal rigor of classical music with the driving energy of rock and the improvisational abandon of jazz, died on June 6 in Chicago. He was 61.
His death, from complications of pneumonia, was announced by Northwestern University, where he held the Harry N. and Ruth F. Wyatt chair in music theory and composition.
The American composer Lewis Spratlan, born in 1940, gained wide attention in 2000 when a concert version of Act II of his opera “Life Is a Dream,” which was completed in 1978 but had never been staged, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. This welcome new recording from the impressive Boston Modern Orchestra Project offers three ingeniously written and distinctive Spratlan works. “A Summer’s Day” (2008) uses a simple, dreamy Celtic tune at the start as a jumping-off place for an elusive, complex suite that ruminates on the tensions below the surface of an inviting day.
Anthony Davis is, in my opinion, one of America’s greatest and most unique composers. His music comes at you from a number of different, intriguing and artistically important perspectives. As a jazz pianist, himself, Davis often brings a sense of the improvised and the most progressive jazz harmonies and momentum to his work. There are not only direct references to some jazz greats, such as Duke Ellington, in his music; such as the captivating Notes from the Underground, but a sense of jazz orientation in a number of his works.
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project celebrated Irving Fine’s centennial at Jordan Hall Friday with performances of three of his works alongside pieces by Harold Shapero and Arthur Berger—two of Fine’s mid-20th-century “Third Boston School” colleagues. The event was part concert, part a collegiate bash for Brandeis University, and part family reunion. Eric Chasalow, the current Irving G. Fine Professor of Music at Brandeis, made some remarks and read a letter from the university’s president, Frederick Lawrence.