Greene’s “Machine Language” speaks eloquently with Boston Musica Viva

October 6, 2019 at 12:28 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Patrick Greene’s “Machine Language for Beginners” was performed at Boston Musica Viva’s concert Saturday night at Pickman Hall. Photo: Micah Greene

Boston Musica Viva, the city’s flagship new-music ensemble, kicked off its 51st season Saturday night at Longy’s Pickman Hall. Founder and music director Richard Pittman conducted.

Called “Small Steps & Giant Leaps,” the evening’s program featured music by three composers: Patrick Greene, Sebastian Currier, and Missy Mazzoli. (Catherine Safelder’s scheduled commission wasn’t completed in time for Saturday’s concert; Pittman told the house that it will be programmed at a later date.)

The Greene and Currier works continued the group’s admirable tradition of giving second performances to previous BMV commissions.

Greene’s Machine Language for Beginners opened the concert. A 2015 score for septet (flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, viola, and cello), the score’s point of departure is the role technology—particularly artificial intelligence—has played in human life through history. For source material, Greene drew widely, taking inspiration from ancient Greek writings, William S. Gilbert’s reworking of the Pygmalion myth, and the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, among others.

His musical language is similarly diverse. The first movement of Machine Language, “Automata,” alternates brightly pulsing ostinatos with a genial, syncopated melody. Layers of glittering rhythmic figures turn up in the central part of “Talos,” its second movement, framed by ominous gestures: thudding bass drum strokes, fragmented motives, and other undertones of menace.

By contrast, ethereal textures (bowed vibraphone; lush, chorale-like, string melodies) are interspersed with eerie ones (bent woodwind notes, clustery piano and percussion figures) in the Pygmalion-infused third movement. And, for the finale, Greene constructed a set of variations-in-reverse on the 1892 hit-song “Daisy Bell.”

That last movement is Machine Language’s most striking for a combination of reasons. Its emotional breadth is wide, ranging from frenzied, aggressive outbursts near the start to a “reveal” of the theme at the end that’s both opulent and unsettling. Technically, it calls for various extended instrumental techniques. And, structurally, Greene wrote a movement that can stand effectively on its own while also, through subtle manipulations of motives heard earlier in the work, tying the entire work neatly together.

Saturday’s performance was touching and persuasive, played with panache and sensitivity by BMV. Not yet thirty-five, Greene is a composer to watch: his music is both undeniably expressive and smartly crafted. Ultimately, it’s a body of work well worth hearing and getting to know, as Machine Language demonstrated.

Sebastian Currier’s music generally shares those same qualities. His Eleven Moons received the evening’s other repeat performance. Written for soprano and ensemble and premiered by BMV just this past February, it sets eleven texts by a broad assortment of writers – from Wikipedia entries and Neil Armstrong to Mary Shelley, Emily Dickinson, and Edgar Allan Poe – on the subject of the eponymous celestial body.

Musically, Eleven Moons is largely chromatic and freely dissonant. Yet it’s fundamentally lyrical and, like Machine Language, immediately communicative and highly personable.

There’s more than a little humor to be found in the almost-monotone “stolen and missing moon rocks” movement (from Wikipedia) and in Currier’s arrangement of part of Poe’s Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfall (in which the text is spoken, not sung, through a megaphone).

In an extract from the Grimm Brothers’ Hansel and Gretel, Currier channels Alban Berg with pungently gorgeous ensemble writing. And his adaptation of lines from Armstrong’s landing on the moon ably captured the wonder and terror of the event, with seismic, widely-spaced string tremolos framing a noble, diatonic vocal line.

On Saturday, BMV presented the piece twice – once before intermission and once after. In both performances, Zorana Sadiq was the soloist. Her upper register, in particular, was pure-toned and slivery, which meant that Currier’s reworking of Edward Madden’s popular song “Moonlight Bay” floated beguilingly. Throughout, Sadiq sang with excellent diction and intonation as well as glowing tone.

Pittman led BMV in a stirring reading of the score. Trumpeter Richard Kelley’s solos in Currier’s settings of Keats and Madden were spot-on. The full ensemble delivered a noble account of the Hansel and Gretel movement and imbued the frenetic writing in Hans Pfall with fervor.

Rounding out the evening was Missy Mazzoli’s Set That on Fire.

Written in 2012, Set That on Fire (for flute, clarinet, trumpet, piano, and violin) is a study in virtuosity: a chaconne-like piano figure is overlaid by various themes and gestures which build up, disperse in various directions, reassemble, and finally head off into the ether.

Basically a diatonic study in tension and release, Set That on Fire came over on Saturday as a friendly essay but, ultimately, a shallow one: tautly played but lacking the passion and fervency that marked the night’s other two  selections.

Boston Musica Viva continues its season with “Multicultural Masters” at 8 p.m. November 23 at Tsai Performance Center. bmv.org; 617-354-6910

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