What’s new is old at Boston Musica Viva’s Lee Hyla tribute

November 22, 2015 at 4:17 pm

By David Wright

Boston Musica Viva paid tribute to Lee Hyla Ina. Concert Saturday night at Pickman Hall.

Boston Musica Viva paid tribute to Lee Hyla in a concert Saturday night at Pickman Hall.

The name of composer Lee Hyla may be unfamiliar to a wide public, but the death of the longtime New England Conservatory faculty member in June 2014, at age 61, still reverberates sorrowfully through the local musical community.

His memory remains fresh enough here that, even a year and a half after his passing, Boston Musica Viva’s concert Saturday night at the Longy School’s Pickman Hall, titled “A Tribute to Lee Hyla,” seemed entirely in order.

The program’s second half was devoted to a substantial Hyla work, Lives of the Saints for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble, its two parts composed in 1998 and 2000 for a commission from Boston Musica Viva.

A revered teacher, Hyla would surely have approved of the first half of his tribute, which presented works composed this year by four young and youngish composers one might call “discovered” by the Rapido!® Composition Contest, a project of a consortium of five chamber groups founded by the Atlanta Chamber Players and including Boston Musica Viva.

And excellent works they were too, although one wonders what the hard-driving, questing modernist Hyla would have made of brand-new music that settled so easily into sounds familiar from Ravel and Stravinsky.

Maybe he would have loved it. The screening panel of the Rapido! Northeast division, distinguished contemporary musicians all, judged three of these works the top of the heap for 2015, and the fourth composer, Patrick Greene, was a 2010 Rapido! regional winner returning with a new commission from the ensemble.

For this year’s competition, the contest organizers specified a form (variations) and instrumentation (piano, violin, clarinet), then started the clock on the competition’s time limit of 14 days.

This tribute concert also served as the semi-final round of the national competition, at which pieces by Nathan J. Stumpff, J.P. Redmond, and Louis Cruz, each lasting about five minutes and composed within that two-week window, received their world premieres.

A three-member jury stood by to select the piece that would represent the Northeast at the national finals in Atlanta on January 17, 2016.

By way of a program note to his piece Working Man’s Wage, Stumpff (b. 1978) pointed with pride to his many manual occupations in addition to composing (the latest was building solar energy systems), and his piece’s theme had an outdoorsy, Irish-reel energy, bumped around by syncopations.

In the variations, violinist Gabriela Diaz fiddled exuberantly, plucked gently, strummed vigorously, played harmonics airily, until a critic might run out of adverbs. Clarinetist William Kirkley contributed, among other things, the klezmer squeals and soft laments at which his instrument excels.

Perhaps a special award for titles should have gone to Redmond (b. 1999), whose Cheese Variations were based on a theme whose first five notes, in German notation, were C, H, E, Es, and E. The piece proceeded through four variations titled, according to their character, “Limburger,” “Pecorino Romano,” “Mozzarella,” and “Con brie.”

It’s a good thing at least one French cheese made it into that list, because the spirit of Maurice Ravel presided through much of the piece, from the silky waltz theme for violin to the spiky jazz of the “romano” variation to the rippling piano and lush harmonies of the closing variation.

Although the French composer once complained that all his pupils “write bad Ravel,” it should be pointed out that Redmond’s piece was attractive, inventive, and not bad at all—in fact, a remarkable accomplishment for a composer just this or that side of 16 years old.

According to his program biography, the catalogue of works by Louis Cruz (b. 1991) includes such impressionistic titles as “A Clear Midnight” and “Le Coucher de Soleil,” but the enigmatic title of his competition entry, MVC, stands for “Model-View-Controller,” described by the composer as “an architectural pattern used to create user interfaces in computer programming.”

Actually, as the composer briefly summarized it in the program, this computer procedure sounded remarkably like the way a composer uses symbolic and mechanical means to create an emotional “interface” with the listener.

And if all this discussion of computers led the listener to expect Wendy Carlos-style beeps and bloops in Cruz’s score, it would have come as a surprise to find Ravel and Les Six squeezing into the programmer’s chair instead.

But there it was, a graceful theme that sounded like the granddaughter of Ravel’s Sonatine, followed by variations that chattered and chopped, intertwined a creamy clarinet with violin harmonics, and closed in a mood of Poulenc-like drollery.

The trio of Diaz, Kirkley, and pianist Geoffrey Burleson, conducted by BMV’s music director Richard Pittman, gave each contest piece a vivid and expressive airing, and each composer came forward to acknowledge the audience’s applause. The jury deliberated during the intermission and declared Cruz’s piece the winner of this round.

But before that announcement could take place, there was one more world premiere to hear, Machine Language for Beginners by Patrick Greene (b. 1985), composed for the full BMV ensemble, including, in addition to the abovementioned players, flutist Ann Bobo, violist Lila Brown, cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws, and percussionist Robert Schulz.

Again the piece’s title came from the computer world—a 1992 children’s book on programming—and again the prevailing influence in the score was not Bill Gates but the history of 20th-century music from impressionism to minimalism.

A retrospective style seemed to fit here, since (according to his program note and remarks from the stage Saturday) the composer was casting his imagination back over centuries of humans’ engagement with seemingly “intelligent” machines.

The music of repetition, from the pounding stacked chords of The Rite of Spring to the tick-tick of Terry Riley’s In C, seemed to echo through Greene’s first movement, “Automata,” depicting the “golden tripods” that marched up and down Mount Olympus in Homer’s Iliad. “Talos” portrayed a colossal ancient robot on the island of Crete in dark rumbles and minimalist patterns outlining Stravinskian harmonies and syncopations.

“Galatea” gently retold the myth of Pygmalion falling in love with his own statue of Galatea, with the two characters’ themes intertwining in a shimmer of light percussion and violin harmonics, amid drifting harmonies and distant glockenspiel notes that resonated with Ivesian nostalgia.

“HAL 9000” evoked the gradual dismantling of the murderous computer in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey through, what else, a set of variations-in-reverse, in which complications were gradually pared away to reveal the theme, a little Victorian-era song (“Daisy Bell”) about a girl and a bicycle ride.

While there was something creepy and sad about the “death” of HAL in the movie, Greene’s lush harmonizing of the tune seemed only playful and just a touch ironic. But who knows, maybe this mellow conclusion by a rising star of the composing world was meant to alarm the modernists of Lee Hyla’s generation.

Fortunately, Hyla spoke most eloquently for himself in the concert’s second half. As Pittman told it in remarks from the stage, Hyla was a Roman Catholic and onetime theology student who read widely in the lives of the saints and responded to each of them as an individual grappling with his or her faith.

Certainly the tribulations and ecstasies of sainthood found passionate expression in the set of “character studies” performed Saturday by BMV, with Aaron Trant joining Schulz in the percussion battery and mezzo-soprano Krista River eloquently delivering the lengthy texts in English, Italian and Spanish.

Music director Pittman expertly steered the ensemble through Hyla’s shifting meters and combinations of diverse musical materials.

The passages from saints’ lives were framed with excerpts from Dante’s Paradiso, brief reflections on his journey with Beatrice through the heavenly realms. The singer’s part here and elsewhere tended to remain in the middle range of pitch, with smooth conjunct lines in the rhythm and inflections of speech, but River needed no vocal gymnastics to convey the intense emotions of the texts.

For example, the first saint encountered along the way was Jerome, translator of the Bible but also a desert-dweller tormented not only by physical hardships but by lustful thoughts of “a cluster of pretty girls” (here in a sinuous duo of violin and viola). The agitation of River’s delivery matched that of the ensemble, and her voice rose to a wail over the movement’s climactic crescendo.

On the other hand, the singer appeared transported by the ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila, and the composer was not above laying down a fandango beat on the bongos when the text shifted from English into Spanish.

In Part II of Lives of the Saints, Hyla presented a St. Francis of Assisi who, yes, preached peace and harmony to the birds, but who also administered a tongue-lashing to his fellow friar Brother Leo for his faltering faith. Happily, this section was in the ideal language for such a dressing-down, and River’s sarcastic Italian inflections were priceless.

By contrast, the singer was all tenderness and grace in her dialogue with the birds (twittering winds and bongos), and Hyla’s work closed with Dante looking down from the spheres at our planet, “the little threshing floor which makes us so fierce,” with a sudden, short-lived crescendo for singer and ensemble on the word “feroce” before the serene conclusion.

It made an economical ending to a work scored with admirable economy of instrumentation, contemplating lives of renunciation that afforded incomparable richness of spirit.

The next presentation of Boston Musica Viva will be a family concert featuring the new ballet “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Bernard Hoffer, performed with the Northeast Youth Ballet, 3 p.m. March 13, 2016, at Boston University, Tsai Performance Center. BMV.org; (617) 354-6910.

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