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.
For the price of a ticket, spectators got to hear not just a large orchestra—“Brahms-sized,” according to program annotator Robert Kirzinger, and we all know how large Brahms was—but something more like an orchestra and a half. For there on the jam-packed Jordan Hall stage, among the violins, harp, trombones, gongs and other traditional orchestral gear, were microphones, speakers, and a laptop ready to beam BMOP up into sonorities Mahler and Debussy could only dream of.
Furthermore, how many world premieres were given in Boston this weekend? On Sunday BMOP, under its artistic director Gil Rose, delivered the first performance anywhere of Riflessioni for solo bassoon, electronics, and orchestra by locally based composer Anthony Paul de Ritis.
For good measure, BMOP followed the world premiere with the Boston premiere of a work commissioned for it (and for ensembles in New York and Buffalo), David Felder’s Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux for soprano, bass, chamber orchestra and electronic sound.
All the pieces in Sunday’s concert—these two and the opener, Ronald Bruce Smith’s Constellation—might have inspired the title “Surround Sound,” but it was the Felder work that made it literally true, bouncing electronic sounds and samples around an array of speakers located throughout the auditorium.
According to the program notes, the afternoon’s debutante, Riflessioni (Reflections), was the product of a friendship between composer de Ritis and the longtime principal bassoonist of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Patrick de Ritis. (The two met in 2005 and discovered that they both had roots in Italy’s Abruzzo region, but Sunday’s program didn’t indicate whether they’re actually related.)
Riflessioni was composed earlier this year, using material the bassoonist had recorded for the purpose. Adding another “reflection” to the mix, the composer designed the piece to be shaped electronically during the performance itself, using Max/MSP software.
On Sunday, one heard this process at work immediately, as soloist Patrick de Ritis began the piece with a long, soft F sharp that could be heard morphing into a sort of super-bassoon sound before agitated trombones burst in on it. A jittery mood seemed to lurk around every corner of the one-movement work, sometimes expressed by the solo bassoon in sharp staccato bursts.
Softly descending strings offered comfort, however, forming blue chords of an Ellingtonian flavor, not surprising for a composer with a reputation for getting his ideas from all over.
In contrast, at one point a crescendo of jerky big-band brass riffs culminated in a scream from the soloist’s double-reed mouthpiece, temporarily detached from the instrument.
Throughout, the electronic sound was cunningly meshed with that of the orchestra. One was occasionally aware of, say, a note seeming to grow and spread over the room, or the brass section’s tone color changing in a way that does not occur in nature.
But no Wendy Carlos boops and beeps intruded on this sound tapestry, which was warmly applauded by the moderately large (Mendelssohn-sized?) Jordan Hall audience, especially when the composer came to the stage for a bow. (The other two composers of Sunday’s works were also present, and did likewise.)
The concert’s opening piece, Smith’s Constellation, was even more discreet in its electronic extensions of orchestral sound, evoking its title explicitly with sparkling high sounds of string tremolo, piccolo, harp, and of course celesta, all spread out electronically across a dark sky of slow-moving harmonies.
This was “modern orchestra” music for sure, but traditional enough in its use of orchestral color to recall, at times, Holst’s The Planets. At ten minutes’ duration, the attractive single-movement work did not overstay its welcome.
To call Felder’s Les Quatre Temps Cardinaux “electronics-enhanced” would be like calling Brahms’s First Symphony “horn-enhanced.” The electronics were so integral to this ambitious, 50-minute-long meditation on time that they became a third soloist, taking over entirely from the orchestra at several points in extended solo cadenzas.
The work’s title was that of its central text, a poem by René Daumal (1908-1944), whose lines were interspersed through the piece’s twelve sections. Orbiting around it, in effect, were other poems that commented on time and its discontents: two by Robert Creely, one by Dana Gioia, and some lines by Pablo Neruda, most of them heard first in the poet’s own voice, then in a musical setting (perhaps including the recorded poet, now sampled and fragmented).
The title “The Four Cardinal Times” referred to the parts of the day, and musically speaking the piece did indeed have a sunrise scene, a high noon, a meditative dusk, and anxieties of the night. This was metaphor, of course, so all of life’s other cycles—the seasons, childhood to old age–were not far from the poets’ and the composer’s thoughts.
Entrusted with the text were two brave singers, soprano Laura Aikin and bass Ethan Herschenfeld, each blessed with vocal power but still no match for the orchestral fortissimos that sometimes rose up and swallowed them. This must have been a deliberate effect, since the electronics were right there that could have leveled the playing field.
Aikin in particular was called on for a variety of effects including singing as if she were an orchestral instrument early on in the piece, and later blending imperceptibly with the electronic version of her own voice. She deftly managed all that, as well as a taxing sequence of maximum-power high notes that somehow cut through the roaring tutti.
Herschenfeld’s tone seemed a little hoarse and covered at first, but relaxed into a clear, well-placed, yet still dark tone that suited “the dying of the light” (sorry, wrong poet) in the piece’s later stages.
The composer’s use of the orchestra was resourceful and evocative throughout the work, and skillful execution by the players and conductor Rose made his musical imagery leap off the page.
During the bows the unseen electronics team of J.T. Rinker, Matt Sargent, and Olivier Pasquet, who had had a hand both in composing the piece and in recomposing it in Sunday’s performance, were acknowledged with waves from the stage. Perhaps the guys with the knobs and the dials will never be the stars. But on this sound-surrounded Sunday afternoon, a real bow, in the bright lights, faded jeans and all, would have seemed about right.
The next program of BMOP will be a co-production with Odyssey Opera, Fantastic Mr. Fox by Tobias Picker, Dec. 7. bmop.org; 781-324-0396.