Wednesday, March 10, 2010

String theory

Gil Rose conducts. Photo by Liz Linder.

I was feeling a little, well, strung out this weekend (having seen both Itzhak Perlman and the Artemis String Quartet), so perhaps I simply wasn't in the mood for "Strings Attached," the latest concert by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (last Saturday at Jordan Hall). Or then again, maybe the concert was simply as mixed a bag as it seemed. At any rate, it proved a rather rambling evening, with perhaps no very deep lows, but only one real high.

The composers on offer ranged from the fresh (Nathan Ball) to the locally familiar (Scott Wheeler) to the established (Betty Olivero) to the modern classic (Bartók, Babbitt). "Stained Glass" was the one world premiere, by the very-young Ball, who is currently a graduate student at New England Conservatory. As you might glean from its title, it was a bit earnest, and maybe even a little corny - a rippling piece of Aaron-Copland-meets-minimalism that aimed for something vaguely uplifting. Still, it arguably got to that uplifting place in an accomplished, thoughtful way, with a last-minute surge that hinted at more interesting things to come (the composer says it's the first part of a triptych).

So Ball clearly has promise; with Scott Wheeler, however, I think it's time for more than promise - but "Crazy Weather" (from 2004) didn't really deliver much more than that. Witty and highly wrought, it was nonetheless never really gripping; oddly, like "Stained Glass," it was at its most interesting at the finish, when a sudden burst of energy seemed to be released that to my mind called out for resolution in a larger structure. Meanwhile the next work on the program, Stephen Hartke’s three-movement “Alvorada’’ (from 1983), boasted more than enough length to really develop a musical idea, but just seemed to meander through its course.

As you might guess, by intermission I was in the mood for something really meaty, but instead had to suffer through Milton Babbitt's silly "Correspondences for String Orchestra and Synthesized Tape" (from 1967). "Here comes the blinkety-blink music," my companion sighed just before it began, and so it was hard not giggle as, sure enough, the recorded electronic serialism went blinkety-blink, just like outtakes from Forbidden Planet, while the orchestra tried to respond. Or rather correspond. To BMOP's credit, the string players gave their all under the guidance of Rose, and did manage to convey an impression of passionate exploration. What exactly they and Babbitt were looking for remained a mystery, however. Maybe it was Altair 4.

Finally we got to program's highlight, Betty Olivero's “Neharót, Neharót,’’ a song of mourning for the ongoing strife in the Middle East (the title translates from Hebrew as "Rivers, Rivers") essayed with fierce commitment by solo violist Kim Kashkashian. A strangely moving mix of wail and chant (accompanied by literal, recorded wails and chants) the piece is a richly embroidered work indeed - it's flecked with references to the likes of Monteverdi - and Kashkashian made an electric connection with the audience (the piece was written for her, and her identification with it seemed complete). My only qualm was the use of recorded voices; why weren't the singers live? I dislike "mediated" performance in general, and I worried at times that “Neharót, Neharót," like much of, say, Osvaldo Golijov, operated as a response to televised grief rather than the thing itself. Or is that actually the more appropriate mode for such a work? (Olivero has said the piece was inspired by television footage of a battle between Hezbollah and Israeli forces.) I confess I'm on the fence on that one, but certainly Olivero managed to conjure with these taped segments quite a complicated political and metaphoric space, of a kind that I doubt Milton Babbitt ever dreamed of.

The final selection on the program (which probably should have ended with Olivero) was Bartók's familiar Divertimento for String Orchestra (1939). BMOP gave the piece a solid reading, but seemed to offer few new insights into it, and I was a bit puzzled by its inclusion. I felt the pressure of a certain correspondence between it and the Babbitt and the Olivero (two included tape, two included politics!) which felt slightly forced, and which I decided to shake off. And alas, the work's complexity, offered so late in the day (as it were) seemed to only scramble further the musical message of the evening. If there's such a thing as too little, too late, then maybe there's such a thing as too much, too late, too. Which doesn't mean I wasn't grateful to BMOP for an introduction to “Neharót, Neharót." It just means that it's always a good idea to leave the crowd wanting more.