Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bolcom, BMOP and the graceful ghost of Ligeti

Olivier Cazal plays William Bolcom's "The Poltergeist" rag.

I'm late with my thoughts on the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's "Bolcom with BMOP" evening last Sunday.  Which may have something to do with the fact that I was slightly, but not entirely, disappointed by the program.  I was drawn to the concert because I'm a fan of its eponymous star, the distinguished American composer William Bolcom - or at least I'm a huge fan (like many people) of his piano and vocal music (a favorite selection, "The Poltergeist," above).  So I was curious about the less-often-heard orchestral selections conductor Gil Rose had chosen for the concert - Bolcom's early Commedia (1971) and his Symphony No. 3 (1979).

Both, however, proved perhaps more interesting for what they said about the state of modern music - or perhaps Bolcom's relationship to that music - than what they revealed as individual musical statements. Bolcom has always been a man torn between "serious" and "popular" modes - he has probably made his largest mark on the culture with his brilliant investigations of ragtime (above).  And listening to his work here, it was hard not to consider him a man fundamentally divided. In Commedia, for instance, he juxtaposed the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries - quoting from everything from Papageno to Petrushka, in fact - without ever really seeming to settle anywhere; the upshot of the piece seemed to be that every musical style was in effect a kind of harlequin, and the whole of musical history therefore, yes, merely a commedia.

Meanwhile, in Symphony No. 3, Bolcom seemed to devise a kind of conceptual stand-off between György Ligeti and (believe it or not) Guy Lombardo. The piece is embroidered with a lot of conceptual mumbo-jumbo about the "alpha" and "omega" of existence, and has the high-modern finish to go with that kind of guff; but a hilariously suave fox-trot takes over from the Ligeti-like washes of prettified dissonance in the second movement, and never really lets go. The effect was funny and poignant - but largely because you could feel the composer's own eccentric energies were most at home in the plush, horn-y rhythms of that fox-trot rather than out there in the nebulous space of some gaseous "future."

Of course many BMOP concerts are a bit like listening to the academy hum to itself (the performances are often funded by the composers themselves, most of whom teach in leading music schools).  And at this program, much of the humming did seem to be coming from the office of the late Professor Ligeti.  Many of the movements on offer derived from the hazy sonic clouds of Atmospheres, for instance - only glinting with more blank optimism than exotic paranoia (and cut with intriguing mixes of vaguely Asian percussion).  It's a formula I've heard a lot before at BMOP, and though Rose always brings off its technical challenges impressively, I can't say I want to hear much more of it.  Still,  Sojourner Hodges's "Full Fathom Five" wasn't a bad sample of the form (and featured some lovely singing from soprano Bethany Worrell).  And Michael Gandolfi's by-now-familiar "Garden of the Senses" Suite from The Garden of Cosmic Speculation was enjoyable enough, even if its sweetly intricate complexities remain somehow unchallenging.

I was most intrigued by local composer Kati Agócs, however, and her gorgeous . . like treasure hidden in a field, even if I felt her music sometimes sounded as if it had been designed to please an unseen faculty committee (she teaches at the New England Conservatory).  Much of . . . like treasure was a bit generically "spiritual" and uplifting - but somehow, as the piece progressed, the composer's passion came through anyway. You wondered whether her essential problem was that she's got no genuine native tradition to embed her passion in - all she's got is the new-age, new-music consensus, which always feels slightly pre-fab. That synthetic quality was only re-inforced in my mind by her web page, in which (coiled sexily on a grand piano), she declares her music is "original, daring and from the heart;" I also noted with dismay her dizzying number of new commissions, all with Hallmark Card titles like "Supernatural Love," "Immutable Dreams," and "Perpetual Summer." Of course being sexy, self-promoting and "spiritual" doesn't mean Agócs doesn't have musical talent; indeed, I think I might already rate . . . like treasure hidden in a field as a bit better than The Garden of Cosmic Speculation.  Like Andy Vores, she may be a local composer to watch.

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