Boston Musica Viva presents Currier premiere, musical responses to political issues

February 3, 2019 at 12:09 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Sebastian Currier. Photo: Jefffrey Herm

Sebastian Currier’s “Eleven Moons” was given its world premiere by Boston Musica Viva Saturday night. Photo: Jeffrey Herm

Since ancient times, people have communed with their hopes, fears, and fantasies by gazing into the moon’s silvery aura.

That sense of sublimity is the focus of Sebastian Currier’s Eleven Moons, which Richard Pittman and Boston Musica Viva offered in its world premiere Saturday night at the Tsai Performance Center.

Scored for a soprano and chamber ensemble, Eleven Moons sets words by Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Neil Armstrong as well as Wikipedia entries that feature the moon as a constant theme of reflection.

With its content and musical style, Currier’s arresting score invites comparisons with Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire. But where Pierrot conveys madness, Eleven Moons is contemplative, the music offering uneasy solace in the face of mystery.

Currier’s serene and dissonant music unfolds at a glacial pace for much of its twenty-minute length. The composer uses wide melodic leaps, which evince a sweet musical strangeness, to vary and break up the flow of the soprano line. Some sections, such as the setting of Poe’s Unparalleled Adventure of one Hans Pfall, course rapidly, the text chanted through a megaphone. Central to Eleven Moons is a quotation from Edward Madden’s 1912 hit song “Moonlight Bay,” which Currier abstracts while maintaining a hint of the tune’s melody.

Soprano Zorana Sadiq sang her part with a warm, fluent tone that brought a searching humanity to the performance. The musicians of Boston Musica Viva supported her with crystalline harmonies that shattered into running figures. Pittman, leading with brisk gestures, made a strong case for this shimmering and attractive score.

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Viva! Boston Musica Viva, written for the ensemble’s current fiftieth anniversary season, also received its world premiere.

For Viva!, Zwilich quotes themes from two works she previously wrote for Boston Musica Viva: her Chamber Symphony and Passages for soprano and chamber ensemble.

Also scored for chamber ensemble, Viva! is by turns stark and buoyant as pulses in the percussion and piano interrupt the flow throughout its brief five minutes. There are moments of melodic sweep, but they are fleeting as the rhythmic bursts return for a bold conclusion. Pittman’s baton was swift and secure as he conjured a zesty reading.

The rest of the program featured music that Boston Music Viva had commissioned and premiered in previous seasons. All explored various particular social and political issues of recent decades.

Completed in 2004 in the wake of the Patriot Act, Brian Robison’s Bonfire of Civil Liberties takes a satirical look at the American government surveillance program through a combination of actors and chamber ensemble.

The composer, in his program note, cites what he calls various assaults on American civil liberties: The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, and the internment of Japanese and German Americans during World War II, as examples of where the desire for safety won out over constitutional freedoms.

Bonfire of Civil Liberties conveys this timely issue through dark humor. In a public service announcement, a narrator entices the audience to remain vigilant of terrorist activity in the spirit of patriotism. As a reward for good citizenship, he offers gifts such as t-shirts and tote bags emblazoned with Bush-era euphemisms as well a “Tickle-Me Gitmo Doll” (a miniature Elmo doll placed in a small cage).

Robison underscores the often bombastic speech with quotations of “America the Beautiful,” “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” and “Chester.” But one by one, the instrumentalists of the chamber ensemble interject wild dissonances as if in protest. Federal agents, played by Tom Nikiper and Christian Santilli, escort each performer off the stage to be silenced.

This nod to Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony” still has the power to make a strong political statement, and Bonfire of Civil Liberties never resorts to cheap effects. As the narrator, Steve Aveson expressed both humor and tragedy.  Members of the ensemble played their roles as musicians and actors with conviction.

Michael Gandolfi’s Budget Cuts from 1995 also made use of theatrical elements.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Gandolfi explores the effects of financial strains upon musicians through the lens of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The first movement, “Ghosts of Budget Cuts Past,” sets passages from great orchestral works for the diluted combination of piano, violin, and mallet percussion. The musicians do their best with thickly scored sections of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the love theme from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. In the second movement, “Ghosts of Budget Cuts Present,” each musician doubles on another instrument while keeping Gandolfi’s music propelling forward. Gabriela Diaz had to maneuver between different violins set up onstage, pianist Geoffrey Burleson was called upon to play clarinet–breathily–and percussionist Robert Schulz played sharp blasts on the trombone. Pittman divided his time between conducting and playing piano and melodica.

In the final movement, “Ghosts of Budget Cuts Future,” the musicians settle into an equilibrium. Here, Gandolfi’s music is surprisingly simple. Pointillistic utterances grow steadily into a trickling melody that never stretches beyond an octave. Boston Musica Viva’s deft and often hilarious performance seemed to suggest that aesthetic developments such as minimalism might be in part driven by lack of monetary support.

Richard and Deborah Cornell’s Wind Driven from 2014 takes a look at precarious climate circumstances.

With dense harmonies that evaporate into sparse lines, Wind Driven for chamber ensemble warns of the effects of climate change in a poetic, understated way. The score—both placid and bustling—accompanies an eight-minute film that casts images of slow-moving water and weather patterns on a map. Triangles, the symbol of caution, are a constant theme.

Under Pittman’s direction, the musicians gave Wind Driven sensitive advocacy to leave questions over the fate of the planet hovering quietly in the air.

Boston Musica Viva will perform music by Patrick Greene and Hale Smith 3 p.m. March 10 at the Tsai Performance Center. bmv.org

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