It has been a big year for Gil Rose, founder and conductor of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which two weekends ago (!) mounted a pleasing evening of classically-themed pieces collectively dubbed "Apollo's Fire."
Indeed, Rose may still be recovering from the closure of Opera Boston, which he had led until its untimely demise (under contested circumstances) last winter. At least he landed on his feet, though - the hard-working, likable Rose quickly found another post, leading New Hampshire's Monadnock Music, and it was good to see that BMOP is still going strong - judging, at least, from this concert.
As usual, the evening was built around a new (or newish) piece of music by an academic composer - this time Lewis Spratlan's Apollo and Daphne Variations (from 1987). Spratlan was a fixture at Amherst for years, and like many other academic composers, he has a Pulitzer to his credit (for his opera Life is a Dream, which I believe dates from the late 70's but has only recently been staged). And again like many academic composers, he is obviously a skilled and intelligent musician; the Apollo and Daphne Variations proved lushly - even brilliantly - orchestrated, and the piece covered a lot (and I mean a lot) of musical ground: ten central variations rubbed shoulders with a fugue and a panoply of different effects, most of them late (or post-) romantic, but others modernist, and some even atonal.
Still, the resulting mélange left you scratching your head; the basic (very basic) idea seemed to be that "Apollo and Daphne don't mix" which I suppose is true, but misses the breathlessly poignant drama of this particular myth. In his notes Spratlan described his central theme as "vaguely in the style of Schumann," but the motif was only too recognizably a lift from the familiar "Traumereï," a piece with many traditional associations, but few that seem applicable to the myth of Apollo and Daphne. The mix of irony and grand tragedy that Spratlan's orchestration conjured likewise seemed - well, gorgeous but also oddly overbearing, and somehow beside the point.
But then the new music on a typical BMOP programs usually strikes me as an elaborate, over-considered misfire. Indeed, I really go to BMOP to hear the old music, not the new stuff, because Rose often builds fascinating programs around his premiere (or near-premiere). This time the musical framing was particularly strong - Stravinsky's Apollon musagète, the accompaniment for Balanchine's classic ballet, was the highlight, but the evening also featureda strong reading of Nikos Skalkottas' Five Greek Dances (1936) and a more mixed take on Elliott Carter's The Minotaur (1947).
I don't know Skalkottas, but his Greek dances proved intriguing - pulsing and muscular, and played with dark energy by BMOP's secret weapon, their accomplished string section. The Stravinsky was even better - "Apollo, Leader of the Muses" is a superb score, which I've never heard live without the accompanying Balanchine dance; this gave me a chance to appreciate its purely musical qualities, particularly its subtly growing rhythmic complexity (which is highly appropriate, given the ballet follows the wooing of Terpsichore, the muse of rhythm, by the eponymous god - who's really just a stand-in for Balanchine himself).
The only real disappointment on the program, actually, turned out to be the Carter; The Minotaur proved a bit of a mess. Its greatest intrigue, I suppose, came from the glimpse it gave of a pre-modernist phase for this particular composer; The Minotaur is (like the Stravinsky) a story ballet, but it lacks Stravinsky's genius - or innate sense of structure (I'm afraid I'll always rank Carter, lovable as he is, in the second tier of composers). As with the Spratlan, though, the orchestral color was always arresting, and when Carter dramatized sex with the man-bull, he did work up a frenzied lather of Harvard-Classics sex horror. The trouble was that sans any accompanying dance, the piece grows muddled (it's one dramatic effect after another), and while the BMOP string section sounded as strong as ever, the brass here was blaring and broad. Oh, well. For this listener, the Stravinsky, and even the Skalkottas, were worth the trip anyway.