Boston Musica Viva opens with modern masters and a composer contest

September 30, 2012 at 12:32 am

By David Wright

Krista Rivers performed John Harbison's "Mirabai Songs" Friday night with Boston Musica Viva. Photo: Teresa Tam

What if you could go to Fenway Park and watch two Class A ballclubs play an opener for the Red Sox game? Today’s stars and the stars of the future, all for one ticket?

That was more or less the premise of Boston Musica Viva’s opening concert of the season Friday night in the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University. Titled “Breakthroughs,” the program offered works for chamber ensemble by Hall-of-Fame sluggers like Peter Lieberson and John Harbison along with world premieres by a trio of young composers who were literally competing for a place in “the show.”

Composers Eric Segerstrom, Derek Hurst, and Mark Berger offered works written within a time limit of 14 days, a sort of open-book composing exam administered by the Rapido!® Composition Contest, a project of a consortium of chamber groups founded by the Atlanta Chamber Players.

For this year’s competition, the contest specified a theme (dance) and instrumentation (piano, violin, cello, oboe). The three works passed the preliminary round to receive their premieres at Friday’s concert, which served as one of five regional semi-finals.

Seated together in the audience was the Boston semi-final jury, consisting of composers Harbison, Martin Brody, and Sam Headrick.

The competition pieces were bookended on the program by more established fare, beginning with Lieberson’s Raising the Gaze, a 1988 piece for piano, strings, winds and percussion, which packed a lot of sonic variety into its eight-minute span, from the dazzling sunshine of the opening to velvety muted strings, from mysterious bumps and rumbles to a fiery violin cadenza. Robert Schulz’s ever-present percussion contributed to all those moods and more.

In the Lieberson, flutist Ann Bobo demonstrated the piccolo’s surprising expressive range, from piercing to tender. In fact, Bobo pretty much emptied her flute locker for this concert, performing at various times on the familiar concert flute in C, alto flute, and bass flute, this last an impressive piece of plumbing rarely seen outside the high-school flute bands of the 1980s.

The bass flute came out for Andy Vores’s Umberhulk, a 2000 piece for mixed ensemble, again including piano and percussion. In remarks from the stage, Vores described the piece as “a cartoon” named for a video-game character, a subterranean creature who can burrow through rock. He used the deepest instruments available (bass clarinet, a slack-tuned viola) to produce the piece’s sepulchral sounds, as the Umberhulk first slumbers amid dripping water and clinking pebbles, then rouses himself to chase some (presumably human) intruders who venture into his domain.

Percussionist Schulz set the scene, augmenting the usual tom-toms and cymbals with sandpaper blocks, tapping stones, and rocks tumbling inside a metal box. Pianist Geoffrey Burleson played the role of the creature with deep bass cluster chords at first, then lumbering music of pursuit. Played with a straight face by the ensemble, the music came off as slightly spooky, slightly goofy, and quite sympathetic to its protagonist.

Then it was time for the competition pieces. Segerstrom’s Indecisive Dances lived up to its title by opening in a flurry of dissonances, then presenting two movements, one a fractured tango, the other a whiff of pavane that hardly danced at all, but paid tribute to Ravel in its drooping gestures and shimmering trills.

In his Pas de Trois, Hurst evoked a classic ballet for three dancers, contrasting dissonant piano chords with long lines for violin and oboe, discreetly supported by pizzicato cello. The music seemed to gather itself in an assertive cello cadenza, and closed (uniquely among the three entries) propulsively and forte.

Berger, in a program note, described his Dream Dances as a reverie on dances he heard long ago, inspired by the sight of his young daughter twirling to music. This latter image was evoked by rotating, tinkling piano figures that sounded a little John Williams-ish at such a high-tone composing competition, but Ravel and Stravinsky’s Rite were the godfathers to Berger’s evocations of a remembered waltz and country reel, respectively.

Music director Richard Pittman, who conducted all the works on the program, told the audience he was dissatisfied with the performance of the Berger, and the piece was repeated. After an onstage huddle, it was agreed that, in fairness to the composers, the other two entries would be repeated too. Hearing all three works a second time allowed one’s ears to relax a little and appreciate the many fine touches of scoring, counterpoint, and relating of themes that one had missed the first time around.

In fact, as Pittman reported after the intermission, the judges had found themselves faced with a difficult choice among pieces of uniformly excellent workmanship and imagination. Ultimately, however, they selected Berger’s Dream Dances to go on to the finals in Atlanta next January, where it will compete for a $7,500 grant and an orchestral commission from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

The concert concluded with Harbison’s Mirabai Songs of 1982-83, a cycle of six settings of poems by the female poet of 16th-century India. Pittman and his ensemble found many shadings of color and mood in the predominantly sensuous, malleable, and melancholy world of this piece.

Mezzo-soprano Krista River convincingly inhabited the poems’ emotions from erotic to angry to despairing, using frank, forward-placed tone and clear diction to carry Harbison’s fine vocal line above the instruments. Her natural phrasing and discreet vibrato enhanced expression without calling attention to themselves.

Boston Musica Viva will perform music of Hughes, Schoenberg, and Kraft8 p.m. Nov. 16. 617-354-6910.

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