BMOP puts a modern backspin on Bach Brandenburgs

January 23, 2016 at 1:19 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Gil Rose led the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in music inspired by Bach's Brandenburg Concertos Friday night at Jordan Hall.

Gil Rose led the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in music inspired by Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos Friday night at Jordan Hall.

Bach’s music has long been a source of inspiration for modern composers with vastly different styles. Villa-Lobos flavored Bachian counterpoint with Brazilian folk melody in the Bachianas Brasileiras, and pianist-composer John Lewis mixed the composer’s intricate voicing with the blues in his music for the Modern Jazz Quartet. Bach’s music, as composer Paul Moravec stated, “is eternally contemporary.” 

Friday night at Jordan Hall, Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project presented recent music inspired by the Brandenburg Concertos, one of Bach’s most popular and enduring works.

The six pieces heard on Friday’s program—composed by Stephen Hartke, Christopher Theofanidis, Melinda Wagner, Aaron Jay Kernis, Paul Moravec, and Peter Maxwell Davies—originated from a commissioning project by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2006. Now, ten years later, these “New Brandenburgs” have come together for a rare, single-concert event. Five of the pieces received their Boston premieres.

The works exhibit an array of different styles, and their connections to the original concertos rest in following Bach’s instrumentation for each piece, with slight variations.

There are hints of the master’s influence: Bach’s signature motive—B-flat, A, C, and B (spelled in German as BACH)—crops up in Moravec’s and Wagner’s works. Theofanidis employs motives from the cantata Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland, and quotations from the Art of Fugue and Musical Offering provide material in Maxwell Davies’ piece, entitled Sea Orpheus.

That work, inspired by Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, colorfully reflects a poem by the Orkney-based George Mackay Brown. It opens with a chant-like melody in the cello. Prickly textures soon emerge, woven together from short, frenzied figures in the strings and flute that coalesce in jagged sonorities. The music flows back and forth between calm sheets of sound and passages of angular riffs. Solo piano, a modern adaptation from Bach’s original use of the harpsichord, captures a prominent place in the piece with long stretches of dissonant phrases. Strings interject with great stabbing chords. The slow section central to the piece unfolds in a double helix, with solo violin and flute spinning melodies around each other. 

The soloists—pianist Angela Kim (piano), flutist Sarah Brady, and violinist Gabriela Diaz—deftly handled the jagged figures central to Maxwell Davies’ score.

Inspired by Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, Aaron Jay Kernis’s Concerto with Echoes differentiates from Bach’s all-string instrumentation in its inclusion of wind instruments. 

His is a stunningly beautiful score, chock-full of romantic feeling without resorting to sentimentality. In the first movement, agitated murmurings unfold in bluesy fiddling in a side-winding rhythm, like a twisted barn dance. The hymn-like serenity of the second movement builds into passages of stark power. The final movement is a darkly shaded country dance, with oboe and English horn supplying the rustic touch. Rose’s excellent, multi-faceted conducting brought to vivid life the inner workings of Kernis’s writing.

Christopher Theofanidis’s Muse takes its cue from the Third Brandenburg Concerto. With its scoring for strings and harpsichord, it closely resembles the original. 

More than the others, Muse owes much to Bach’s example. Theofanidis’ style in this work is one of bright luminescence, with string figures pouring over one another in a cascade of sound, an ear-tingling variation of the principal melody from the opening movement of the original concerto.

The BMOP strings played the triplet figures of the opening movement and the grinding passages of the finale with bold commitment, the notes crackling with crispness and intensity. In the second movement, the strings came together in glowing sheets of sound.

One of the most colorful pieces heard Friday night was Melinda Wagner’s Little Moonhead. Inspired by Brandenburg No. 4, Wagner’s work is staged as a solo violin concerto, though the solo passages quickly fade into the larger orchestral forces. Violinist Gabriela Diaz fluently handled the work’s virtuosic flourishes, which produced shimmering lines over the sprightly orchestral statements.

The outer movements of Wagner’s score move in bursts of energy, while the second movement, with celesta added to the texture, flowed in washes of impressionistic orchestral sound. Rose and ensemble delivered a bold reading.

Two of the works heard were composed as personal reflections on particular places and events.

Stephen Hartke’s Brandenburg Autumn, first performed in Boston by the Cantata Singers in 2011, is not only based on the first of Bach’s concertos, it is a musical diary of sorts, reflecting the composer’s impressions of the palace of Charlottenburg, where Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, the dedicatee of Bach’s concertos, lived. 

The work is awash in bold colors, though Hartke’s writing retains a soft, silky exterior. His language is rooted in tonality, with close dissonances peppering the harmonic writing. Yet above it all there are brief moments of soaring melody. The finale, which places English and French horns at the center of the action, is a work of driving Bartókian energy.

Rose led a nuanced reading, taking care to shape Hartke’s textures with round phrases and dynamic shading.

Paul Moravec’s Brandenburg Gate, a riff on the Second Brandenburg Concerto, is a musical depiction of the globe-changing events of 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and the Brandenburg gate opened.

Moravec’s nimble score brims with joyous energy, with strings, woodwinds, and solo trumpet dexterously trading serpentine phrases with each other. Moravec wrote music of descriptive power—the pizzicato string figures of the third movement, he noted, symbolize hammer and chisel sounds on the Berlin Wall.

Rose led with a fine ear to the details of the piece, molding the sound with broad gestures. The hero of this performance was trumpeter Terry Everson, who brilliantly played the gnarly runs and double-tongue figures that grace this work.

In the next concert by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose will lead a complete performance of David Del Tredici’s Child Alice 8 p.m. March 25 at Jordan Hall.

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