Boston Musica Viva looks back to the future with new music by mostly young composers

November 18, 2013 at 10:32 am

By David Wright

Baritone David Kravitz was the soloist in Thea Musgrave’s “The Mocking-bird,” performed by Boston Musica Viva Saturday at Pickman Hall.

Saturday’s program by Boston Musica Viva at the Longy School’s Pickman Hall was titled “Trials of Youth,” referring to at least two of the three works presented: Thea Musgrave’s Civil War scena for baritone The Mocking-bird and Charles Zoll’s Bailes encima del escritorio de nuestra juventad, the prize-winning piece in a competition for young composers.

It wasn’t clear how Andy Vores’s Fabrication 15: Amplification fit with the title, although the piece itself is certainly in its youth, since Saturday’s performance was its world premiere.

The instrumentation for the three pieces was similar: a balanced yet contrasted mix of piano. percussion, violin, cello, clarinet or bass clarinet, flute or oboe. BMV’s music director Richard Pittman ably conducted all three performances.

Given the strong thread of nostalgia running through all three pieces, “Looking Backward” might have been a more fitting title for the concert, even if it’s not exactly the note a contemporary-music ensemble wants to sound in its marketing plan.

Composer Zoll, for example, was a college senior looking back to his years as the self-described “nerdy” son of his high school’s Spanish teacher. “High school was a long time ago, for me,” the newly-minted McGill University graduate student in composition told the audience Saturday night. (What does that make it for the rest of us?)

The Rapido! competition, sponsored by the Atlanta Chamber Players and The Antinori Foundation with Boston Musica Viva and three other ensembles, gives composers a list of instruments and 14 days to come up with a composition for them. In the competition’s third edition, Zoll’s work made its way through a regional contest and a national final to become the overall winner, and is now making the rounds of the participating ensembles. Saturday’s performance was its U.S. Northeast premiere, and world troisième.

Propulsive Latin dance rhythms laid down by piano and percussion were the most immediately appealing aspect of Zoll’s five-movement piece, whose title translates as “Dances atop the school desk of our youth.” (Zoll disarmingly confessed that, since he doesn’t “speak a lick of Spanish,” his mom helped him with the titles.) Most likely, however, it was Zoll’s skillful and imaginative handling of the instruments for tone color, counterpoint, and special effects that earned him the top prize.

Pianist Geoffey Burleson briefly played the piano strings with mallets, to unearthly effect. Cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws contributed mysterious, grating sul ponticello tones. And the lucky audience got to hear Miri Kudo’s creamy-toned oboe solo twice, when an apparent flub by the pianist’s page turner necessitated stopping and restarting the piece.

Zoll said his central image for the piece was a couple dancing in the constricted spaces of a high school classroom, maybe even on the desks, an idea often reflected in up-and-down melodic gestures and a narrow compass of pitches. With that limited palette, however, Zoll was able to evoke an emphatic flamenco; a dreamy, disjointed tango à la Debussy; a drolly dissonant but very danceable lindy hop, starting slow but repeated fast; a heavy dance with the thump of a zapateado and a touch of Miles Davis cool; and a finale in a chugging, fast five-to-a-bar that made one think of Bernstein.

The title of Andy Vores’s piece was itself a look back to the mid-20th century, when it seemed that all titles of new works ended in “-ation.” But Vores’s Fabrication 15: Amplification didn’t deal in the compositional rigors of Xenakis or Boulez. As the composer explained from the stage Saturday night, this was one of a series of pieces that he considered “fabricated” from an experience—in this case, the experience of walking down a Cambridge street on a hot summer day and hearing a piano rag being played very slowly and haltingly in one of the houses.

As Vores told it, fantasizing about the strangely slow music caused him to take an actual rag by Scott Joplin, slow it down, pull it apart, and rewrite it as a new piano piece called Slow Peacherine Rag—which in turn became the basis for the chamber work that debuted Saturday.

As the piece began, the old tune seemed to lie on the floor in tiny shards, isolated staccato chords that only very gradually assembled themselves into a syncopated rhythm here, a snatch of melody there. The glacially slow piano rag began, the vast spaces between its chords filled with undulating sounds from the ensemble, subtly colored by Robert Schulz’s vibraphone.

Through a sort of Ivesian cloud of memory, one could hear the rag tempo picking up, lurching in hesitations and spurts like a casual sight-reader (or a bad practicer) at the piano, speeding up in the easy parts. It wasn’t hard to imagine such sounds floating out of an open window on a summer day. (In fact, stepping outside at intermission, this reviewer heard a pianist upstairs in the Longy School giving Rachmaninoff’s G minor Prelude exactly the same treatment.) This ever-surprising piece ended in a swirl of ultra-fast pianissimo scales led by flutist Lisa Hennessy, her fingers a blur.

Hennessy played an even more prominent role—the title role, in fact—in Musgrave’s The Mocking-bird, a scene for singer and chamber ensemble based on a story by Ambrose Bierce. The fratricidal horrors of this country’s Civil War were made to order for Bierce’s bitter irony, and, composing in 2000 with a commission from BMV, Musgrave drew a powerful antiwar message from this vignette of a terrified Union soldier, separated from his unit and remembering how the song of a mockingbird delighted him in better days.

Staged by BMV in 2001 with costumes, lighting and scenery, The Mocking-bird returned in concert format on Saturday night, throwing perhaps undue emphasis on Musgrave’s score, which, while well-crafted and rich in telling detail, remains harmonically static around the same dissonant diminished chord for pages at a time, when one’s attention would presumably be on stage action.

Baritone David Kravitz brought potent acting skills and clear, natural diction to the role of Private Grayrock, giving full expression to the lost soldier’s fear, anger, bitterness, and gallows humor. Kravitz has reason to be proud of his powerful instrument, but using his Symphony Hall voice in tiny Pickman Hall was counterproductive. He often drowned out the ensemble, and could have accomplished more by drawing the audience to him than by assaulting their ears—at least until the scene’s tragic dénouement, where nothing is held back.

Hennessy interpreted the mockingbird’s ever-changing song attractively, standing at her seat a couple of times (perhaps to indicate the bird’s presence onstage) and escorting the singer off the stage at the end. But as bird roles go (think Stravinsky), this part was oddly lacking in presence, either because of a deliberate distancing by the composer or an imbalance in the ensemble, it was hard to tell which.

The next performance of Boston Musica Viva is a Family Concert titled “Pinocchio and King Midas” with works by Gandolfi and Salfelder, 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014. bmv.org; 617-354-6910.

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