The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Andrew Druckenbrod
January 30, 2006

The concert began with a composition set At Suma Beach, but a summa of a different kind highlighted this Pitt Music on the Edge event at Bellefield Hall in Oakland.

Guest composer Lee Hyla’s Lives of the Saints, a work for solo voice and chamber ensemble, not only took theology as its subject, but also amounted to a virtual musical treatise.

All the better, then, that a group versed in the composer’s output performed it: Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Under conductor Gil Rose, a Westmoreland County native and a graduate of Carnegie Mellon who briefly ran the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, Hyla’s ambitious work regaled the listener.

Written in 2000, Lives of the Saints was Mahlerian in scope and beauty, seeking to encompass an entire world through varied techniques and diverse accounts of spiritual rapture - all with only nine musicians. While seamless to the ear, the through-composed score constantly shifted from atmospheric to thematic, from tutti to solo accompaniment, from extended technique to orchestral treatment.

Hyla also differed his approach to the individual movements, devoted each to texts from hagiographies of St. Jerome, St. Francis and others, and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

Binding the staggering complexity together was mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger. Channeling Maria Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, Nessinger’s expressive visage alternated from beaming in ecstasy to writhing in agony. She embodied characters with smooth mutability and multiplicity of tone.

This aided the expression of the texts, some of which bordered on inscrutable. Rose displayed a keen understanding of how to pace the large work and to balance the evolving backdrop that included melodica and hammered dulcimer.

With glorious treatment and compelling writing, Saints should join the musical canon, too.

Hyla’s On Suma Beach of 2003 is a tribute to Japanese Noh drama, a setting of Matsukaze for voice and ensemble. Commissioned by the Japan Society of New York to “reflect Japanese culture,” the score occupies no-man’s-land, not unlike its subject of two ghosts walking the Earth. I think Hyla had trouble deciding when to adhere to Japanese culture and when to write with his own aesthetic.

Clearly, he didn’t use Eastern musical language, although he approximated it with the attractive, hazy ambiance of the ensemble and the sharp percussive attacks.

But he crafted the vocal part with the reserve common to Noh plays, which seemed inadequate and tentative in what was ultimately a Western context. Nessinger’s wistful timbre haunted, but her other emotions were too muted and ultimately caused the work to drag.

Pitt composer Eric Moe’s Time Will Tell from 1996 provided needed lightness amid the gravitas. Texture and themes orbit a sprightly rhythm that pulses vividly throughout.

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project delivered this romp buoyantly. There was also an announcement that the Pitt series plans to collaborate more with the Boston Modern - a promise of a Rose-y future, indeed.

- Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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