Chamber Music Today
March 7, 2011

“When writing a score, there’s got to be something that you can do that will not just be a nice honor to the play, or the book, or the film you’re dealing with, but some aspect that maybe can explore something that the play just couldn’t do. Once I know what the first page [of music] is, then the rest will come.”
— William Bolcom

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project Bolcom w/ BMOP program last night was exceptionally good. A thread held in common by each of the works was their concern for spirituality, for Time, and for how we experience our short lives and the lives of those we love.
- Sojourner Hodges: Full-Fathom Five, elegy for Donald C. Hodges [première] (Bethany Worrell, soprano)
- Michael Gandolfi: Garden of the Senses Suite (Allemande-audition; Courante-olfaction; Sarabande-gustation; Passepied-palpation; Gigue-vision; Chorale-intuition)
- Kati Agócs: treasure hidden in a field (Chorale; Peregrination; Pearl of Great Price; Cathedral with No Ceiling; Celestial Machinery)
- William Bolcom: Commedia for (Almost-) - William Bolcom - Symphony No. 3 (Alpha; Scherzo vitale; Chiaroscuro; Omega)

The program notes by composer Robert Kirzinger are always a genuine pleasure when attending BMOP events or Tanglewood, and last night was no exception. Knowing the composers/artists as well as he does, he is invariably able to provide a great number of fascinating details about the composers’ biographies and current projects—far more vivid than you would find in any press-kit or agent bio package, and far more than most artists would think to mention. Terse, crystalline, provocative; never enigmatic or museum-plaque-like. And his 7 pages and 3,500 words of text for last night’s BMOP program reveal many intimate bits; the dates of composition and first performance, and where and by whom it was first performed; generous juicy quotes from each composer, on what she or he intended and what inspired or motivated each work; the occasional wry, funny, ironical ditzel; plus mini-summaries of what’s “under the hood” of each piece and how it works.

He gives the audience a sense of what to expect while hearing the piece, but is never excessively technical—sonata form, rondo, passacaglia, etc.—he does not ‘talk down’ or define each term for his readers, but rather gently makes it apparent in his ensuing paragraphs what the deal is and why it’s interesting. Seven pages and 3,500 words are not a lot; when they are truly exciting like his writing is—any more than 400 pages and 200,000 words are too much for a really good novel that you can’t put down.

“The designation ‘symphony’ implies ambition—and the piece, in 30 minutes and four movements, delivers, if not precisely in a traditional way… the orchestra is more-or-less Mozart-sized, with modern doublings (piccolo, alto flute, E-flat clarinet) plus electric piano, which adds a distinct sonic touch… The beginning and end of the piece, musically similar, represent a ‘collective consciousness’ from which our individual spirits emerge and into which they return. The alto flute, English horn, and first bassoon are a ‘half-humorous visualization of three spirits who watch over the process of our birth and death.’ … Bolcom represents the collective consciousness with a miasma of string glissandi…”
— Robert Kirzinger, program notes

While the primary consumers of program notes are the audience members, the notes can enrich the playing experience and understanding of the performers and the conductor as well. In fact, I suspect that the reason Kirzinger writes the way he does is because it is a genuine creative opportunity, not an ‘obligation,’ not mere marketing ‘collateral’ that he is producing. Program notes are an artistic performance by its author(s), not a workaday ‘task’ with a commodified, mass-market ‘deliverable.’ Program notes are part and parcel of his ongoing dialogues with these people and with this music. It’s conversational—the writing of the program notes is an embodiment of the mutual commitment and the friendship that make high-quality conversation possible and real.

And if well-engineered program notes can manage to contribute to the performers’ and the conductor’s experience, then how much more we audience members can get from them! Hold the program notes in your hand. Open them. Begin reading them as though they were a piece of music. You are sight-reading a libretto! The story has characters in it—some who live; some who have died; all of whom have done some cool things. Things happen in that program-notes libretto—exciting stuff—and if you give a good ‘reading,’ you might have a part! You really oughtta take that program home with you and re-read it. It isn’t a throw-away; it isn’t a only-for-show ‘sacrament’ of a religion you no longer believe in. Your sight-reading ability isn’t as great as it could and should be, you know…

“This work represents the desire to keep spiritual things close and present in everyday life, with recognition of just how challenging this goal can be… a series of saturated chords is cast antiphonally throughout the ensemble, and the otherworldly presence of unpitched, flat Chinese gongs sustains a rarified atmosphere over the work’s five-movement arc, culminating in a cacophony of bells.”
— Kati Agócs, notes for …like treasure

Robert Kirzinger’s program notes texts read like concise, friendly ‘gists’… in-a-nutshell analyses, bolted onto exciting, expertly-redacted, friend-to-friend interviews with the composers—this is substantially what his program notes are. It’s really heartwarming to read program notes as lively and honest as the programs they’re about, and we consider ourselves very lucky to receive them as a bonus for the modest price of admission. The pre-concert chat between William Bolcom and Michael Gandolfi on-stage was fantastic, too—providing insights into their music, yes, but also enabling us to know what smart, decent human beings they both are. Went home happy, a little brighter, a little bigger-hearted, and more confident about the future of serious music and of program notes. Bravo, Robert! Bravo, BMOP! Bravo, Kati, Bill, Michael, and Sojourner!