It is an all too familiar scene: patrons travel to a grandiose hall to hear a major symphony orchestra perform on a Thursday-through-Sunday evening. The main attractions include a concerto performance by a critically acclaimed soloist and a symphonic masterpiece by a composer who is most likely long dead. Audience members find their seats and open the program only to discover, much to their dismay, that the concert will begin with an often tolerated but seldom enjoyed world premiere of a newly commissioned work. Everyone sits through this gesture of goodwill and politely applauds, and then the “real” concert begins. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) blatantly addresses this disconnect and is on a quest to eradicate it. This ensemble, founded in 1996 by Artistic Director Gil Rose, is the leading orchestra in the United States dedicated to the performance of new music, and they are quickly setting a new standard for contemporary classical music. One of the ensembles’ most recent composer-centric releases, Lewis Spratlan: Apollo and Daphne Variations (BMOP/sound), proves that new music can be accessible when treated with the same care and attention as the classical giants.
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lewis Spratlan’s attractive and intriguing compositional style is both highly accessible and widely appealing— a perfect match for the mission of the BMOP. The CD begins with a 2008 BMOP commissioned work, A Summer’s Day. The first movement, “Hymn to the Summer Solstice,” introduces a simple Celtic-inspired flute melody that permeates the rest of the work and connects the portraits of various scenes throughout the summer day that ensue.
The trombones promptly interrupt the flute mid-phrase and introduce the “Nightmare.” While the material, particularly in the brass parts, contains wild and bombastic writing, these passages are executed with finesse and pristine technique that does not sacrifice integrity of tone for the sake of volume or character.
The ethereal and atmospheric “High Humidity, Moist Sheets” opens with quite possibly some of the most in-tune piccolo playing I have ever heard (I cannot praise the remarkable intonation of this ensemble enough). “Pick-Up Basketball Game at the Park” features the pedestrian sounds of clapping and a basketball bouncing. “Nap” continues to explore unique timbres by assigning the melodic content to what sounds like a trio of horn, english horn, and alto flute, but the ensemble blend is so incredible that it is difficult to discern individual voices.
“At the Computer” continues to demand technical virtuosity of all members of the ensemble, and every individual meets this challenge with apparent ease. Spratlan captures the imagery of “Serene Evening, Soft Breezes, Crickets, and a Distant Storm,” brilliantly with solo woodwind lines accompanied by harmonics in the strings. The piece concludes with the sublime “Starry Night” and completes the journey through the day. Spratlan’s ability to musically conjure these specific scenes provides the audience with an anchor of familiarity while presenting material that is unique in both tonality and formal structure.
The CD continues with Spratlan’s “Concerto for Saxophone Orchestra (2006)” performed masterfully by Eliot Gattegno. Spratlan conceived this work in the wake of the 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli conflict, and the resulting composition depicts a journey from disorganized chaos to structure and comprehension.
The first movement features the soloist on soprano saxophone as a separate entity from the rest of the ensemble. The saxophone soliloquy acts as an outside commentary and elicits feelings of confusion and disorder. The solo line persists with its puzzled questioning with no regard for the orchestra, and one cannot help but to liken this movement to Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question.”
The contrasting second movement, “Ballad for Billy and Mary Virginia,” is a jazz ballad for tenor saxophone that demonstrates Gattegno’s range of stylistic ability. The third movement signals the return of the soprano saxophone voice but in a much more traditional soloist-interacting-with-ensemble fashion. The unification of these two previously separate entities demonstrates how the isolated solo voice can just as easily conform to the rest of the ensemble.
The middle section launches into a John Coltrane bebop-style flurry of notes for both the soloist and the ensemble and showcases the outstanding abilities of both Gattegno and the orchestra. The piece concludes with the soprano saxophone voice emerging from the commotion with a sense of newfound understanding and reconciliation.
The programming of this particular CD is extraordinarily put together; it begins with the most accessible work of the collection, introduces the added component of a soloist, then concludes with the more complex “Apollo and Daphne Variations (1987)” once we are acclimated to Spratlan’s compositional style. Named for the contrasting characters present in this binary 16-bar waltz, each variation takes on a decidedly different persona and invokes late-romantic Germanicism, pointillism, 20th-century French wit, a Soviet revolutionary-style march, and grand fugue. The demands of this work highlight the reasons why the BMOP is a first-rate orchestra: beautiful blend and tone colors throughout the ensemble, pristine intonation, and attention to full ensemble balance.
The stellar orchestral musicians that make up BMOP erase the stigma of the dreaded “newly commissioned work” and provide a performance that is convincingly and genuinely executed, thus enabling the listener to appreciate the works included on this CD on a new level. Gil Rose’s honest belief in the advancement of new orchestral music is readily apparent and challenges listeners to approach these works with a heightened sense of respect and understanding.