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.
De Ritis’s Riflessioni, for bassoon and orchestra, was the afternoon’s world premiere. In it, de Ritis has written a piece that’s not quite a bassoon concerto – the electronics were at least as prevalent as the soloist – but it showcases the solo bassoon in all sorts of clever ways. Through the electronics, the instrument’s timbre is continuously transformed. Sometimes it sounded like a voluminous saxophone, sometimes like a brass choir. At one point, the excellent, involved soloist, Patrick de Ritis (no announced relation to the composer, though they both have family roots in Abruzzo), removed the bassoon’s mouthpiece and played into it.
De Ritis’s musical language is eclectic. He makes much of drawing his influences from all over the map and Riflessioni demonstrates the sure command and maturity of his technique. There are angular, Modernist riffs. Not infrequently does the piece intimate the blues and the world of big band. Throughout, a strongly lyrical voice pervades the music. Technically, it is filled with fluid exchanges of ideas between the soloist and orchestra: oftentimes the one accompanies the other with completely contrasting gestures and to striking effect.
Riflessioni’s only real drawback has to do with the electronics, which, to these ears, became too much of a good thing. De Ritis uses a lot of echo in the piece, both from the soloist and from within the orchestra. After a while, 1) it starts to become predictable and 2) makes soupy articulations that, when heard naturally, are short and clear. There were several points (such as the climactic presentation of its big tune) in which it felt as though Riflessioni was the aural equivalent of looking at a picture through frosted glass. After a while, the experience gets tiring. One assumes this is the effect de Ritis was after; to me, it seemed counterproductive and undercut at least some of the music’s directness.
Of the three works on Sunday’s program, David Felder’s Les Quatre temps Cardinaux (The Four Cardinal Times) took best advantage of the surround-sound stereo set-up in the hall. Written in 2013 for BMOP, Ensemble Signal, and Slee Sinfonietta, it takes its inspiration from René Daumal’s eponymous poem, an ode to the dawn, noon, dusk, and midnight. Additional poems by Robert Creeley, Dana Gioia, and Pablo Neruda provide further commentary. In many ways, it feels like a magnum opus (and the program notes describe it as a summation of Felder’s longtime interest in Daumal).
Musically, in Quatre temps Felder engages in some stock electroacoustic composition devices. There are recordings of the poems being read; at one point, the Daumal recitation is chopped into phonemes that gradually become indistinguishable from synthetic beeps and bops – it sounds like an electronic popcorn maker hard at work. At one point, a Reich-ian interlude intrudes before being abruptly cut off.
Throughout, the blend of electronic and acoustic sounds is virtually seamless. The orchestral writing is generally colorful and vigorous, nowhere more so than in Felder’s dazzling painting of a sunrise in its opening section. The ferocious climax at the end of Part 2 was also thrilling, but for another reason: it let the orchestra really rip for the first time all afternoon. (Also because Gil Rose’s baton flew out of his hand during a particularly thunderous outburst; it landed harmlessly in the aisle.)
Felder’s vocal writing, though, is rather mixed and often thankless. Text settings are often awkward, stilted, and, in Gioia’s “Insomnia,” illustrated a bit too obviously. On Sunday the orchestra regularly covered the singers, who were sometimes clearly amplified but, at others, might have benefited from more sympathetic mic-ing. Bass Ethan Herschenfeld sounded understandably uncomfortable and not a little forced in his extreme low register, but he delivered solid readings of his selections. So, too, did soprano Laura Aiken, whose part sounded more idiomatic, though here, too, there were some balance issues. In general, Aiken’s performance was powerful, whether singing to the gnarly accompaniment of a recording of her own voice or climbing to the stratosphere to cut through the orchestral fabric with icy clarity.
The orchestral playing, a couple moments of questionable intonation notwithstanding, was commanding and, at times, exhilarating. Even if some of Felder’s compositional decisions didn’t make sense (on first hearing, at any rate) and its second half never quite lived up to its first, the overall thrust of Quatre temps is compelling. I thought its forty-five minutes went by in a flash.
The ten-minute duration of Ronald Bruce Smith’s Constellation also passed briskly. Much of his writing in it – especially for the strings – shimmers. Gestural flecks from the piano and harp and exclamations from the woodwinds alternate with rich, dissonant brass chorales. The electronic element is very subtle, only quite apparent at a couple of spots, including the piece’s riveting climax with its splashes of celestial raindrops.
Despite the generally static harmonic and dramatic nature, Constellation impresses with its brevity and directness. It’s often beautiful and moves just enough to consistently engage the ear. And, with its enigmatic, lingering final cadence, it’s more than a little haunting. It made for an ideal concert opener, one that, displaying those aforementioned qualities, anticipated the best moments to come in this largely satisfying start to BMOP’s new season.