Boston Musica Viva’s evocative “Role-Play” explores characters in music
Shape-shifting and dream states were the order of the day Sunday afternoon at Boston Musica Viva’s final season program, which presented a world premiere by Judith Weir, a song cycle by Sebastian Currier, and works by Elliott Carter and Peter Child.
“Role-Play” was the overall title of the program, referring most obviously to Currier’s Vocalissimus for soprano and chamber ensemble (1991), which sets a single poem by Wallace Stevens in over a dozen different ways. But the title resonated in the other three works as well.
For example, Weir’s Blue-Green Hill, composed last year for this ensemble and receiving its first performance Sunday, took melodic gestures from the folk music of the composer’s native Scotland and set them wandering in an impressionist landscape, or dancing to a jazz or samba beat.
Introducing her piece from the stage on Sunday, Weir recalled a concert ten years ago involving musicians from India and the West. When the program came out a little short, Weir was persuaded to write down some Scottish folk songs for the players to improvise on.
Hearing the whimsical, fantastic performance that resulted, Weir said, she thought “I must write that down someday.” Blue-Green Hill—the title wasn’t explained in the printed program or the composer’s talk—interpreted that experience for what the composer called “a very classical ensemble” consisting of flute (standard and alto), clarinet, violin, cello, and piano.
But there was nothing very classical—i.e., like Beethoven or Brahms– about the sonorities that ensemble produced. With BMV music director Richard Pittman conducting, the work began in the instruments’ cool, hazy low registers, the cello leading the way with a bit of Scottish melody amounting to little more than a characteristic ornamental turn.
With the piano providing gentle harmonic and rhythmic support, the other four instruments intertwined amid harmonies that dreamily slipped into and out of the Scottish pentatonic scale.
The second of the work’s three movements led off with a piano solo suggestive of boogie-woogie or Debussy’s minstrel pieces. Smooth chords with a Ravel coloration floated over that, and there was even a Coplandesque moment when a phrase repeatedly reached upward in rangy fourths. The change from alto to standard flute signaled a brighter tone color for this movement, giving piquancy to the syncopated quasi-samba episode.
The last movement rose higher still, with more bits of folk song swirling and circling in the instruments’ middle and upper registers, with pentatonic harmonies coming through strongly. The close, with the piano deep in the bass and the other instruments floating into the stratosphere, was just the right whimsical finish for this delicate piece.
Blue-Green Hill was repeated later in the program. The second time around, the players seemed to relax into the piece more, and a listener, having some idea what was coming, could follow the composer’s train of thought better.
The program opened with Peter Child’s Duo for Flute and Percussion (1979). In this case, “duo” just meant two players—in fact, a duo with percussion sounds more like a nonet once the tom-toms, chimes, cymbals, bongos, xylophone, etc. get going.
But there was a duality to the “roles” being played in this piece. Although the composer’s program note says nothing about it, a sense of gender roles was inescapable in this performance.
Don’t tell James Galway or Evelyn Glennie this, but the flute is commonly associated with female players, as percussion is with men. The fact that BMV flutist Ann Bobo and percussionist Robert Schulz are (besides superb players) respectively an attractive blonde woman and a tall, dark, handsome guy did nothing to dispel this impression.
Even more than most duos, Child’s piece seemed to look inside an intimate, and essentially harmonious, relationship. No doors were slammed or dishes thrown, but there were plenty of little approaches, retreats, questions, frictions, and ripostes as the two players interacted.
After introducing the two “characters” with solos in the opening Prelude, Bobo and Schulz settled into a Two-Part Invention—the title itself being a metaphor for an ongoing relationship—in a sensuous atmosphere defined by the mellow vibraphone and liquid flute tone.
The ensuing Caprice set the flute dancing in breathless little phrases to a humorous beat laid down in tom-toms, bongos, and temple blocks. Schulz began the closing Fantasy with a thoughtful monologue that showed off his repertoire of subtle shadings and nuances, then was joined by Bobo in long, flowing atonal phrases. In fact, it was both players’ sense of subtle characterization that gave this performance such a real-life feeling.
There wasn’t anything subtle about Elliott Carter’s Double Trio (2011). Well, there was, but what one remembered most from Sunday’s performance—the first of this work in Boston– was the 102-year-old composer’s delight in drawing stark contrasts and throwing Ivesian thunderbolts.
As he wrote in a program note, the centenarian Carter found himself thinking anew about the role brass instruments could play in chamber music, “because of their ability to play softly and use different kinds of mutes.” He still gloried in the instrumental mismatch, however, dividing six players into two trios consisting of trombone-violin-percussion and trumpet-cello-piano, then setting these groups in dialogue (or sometimes squabble) with each other.
As was his wont, Carter subdivided the beat differently for each instrument. With Pittman again on hand to maintain order, the ensemble gave a focused performance, rendering the long meditative lines and the sudden, furious interjections with equal poise.
The brass did indeed play softly, almost inaudibly at times, with their variety of mutes adding different colors along the way. But as the music developed, it was John Faieta’s mellow, unmuted trombone that laid the foundation for this complex, lucid, and eventful piece.
One of Wallace Stevens’s most famous poems is titled Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. In Vocalissimus, Sebastian Currier went the poet five better, composing eighteen ways of looking at a single Stevens poem, To the Roaring Wind. The entire poem is:
What syllable are you seeking,
In the distance of sleep?
Like an actor trying different line readings, Currier inflected these enigmatic lines according to eighteen different personality types, ranging from recluse, satirist, and miser (a very short song) to scientist, mystic, and lunatic (a scary mad scene). The result was a cycle of colorful vignettes or character pieces.
Pittman led the same ensemble as performed the Judith Weir piece, with Schulz added on percussion. Unlike Weir, however, Currier did not shy away from full-bore, quasi-orchestral sound as he sketched his characters, and Sunday’s players rendered it all with color and energy.
The title Vocalissimus was a canny choice, not only because it was plucked from the poem itself, but because the piece is virtually a catalogue of the vocal techniques singers are called on to use in contemporary music. And in this afternoon of role-playing, soprano Zorana Sadiq definitely earned the musical Oscar.
Sadiq’s clear, well-supported voice was by turns vibrant, plain, speech-like, muffled, edgy, wan, and aggressive. She soared over a robust tutti in one song and slid into the texture, pianissimo, in another. Her inflections curled around a phrase, a word, a syllable. She hit disjunct, syncopated, staccato notes with accuracy and assurance. It was quite a thing to witness, and it served Currier’s diverse characters well.
It must also have been a taxing job. Sadiq’s jubilant smiles and laughter during the bows looked a lot like relief.
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