CONCERT REVIEW The hidden life of strings

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project performs experimental music written for traditional instruments

Boston Modern Orchestra Project

Gil Rose, conductor

Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory

March 6, 2010

The string section is a staple of any orchestra: The largest of the instrumental sections, the strings are the most prominently displayed. Strings are usually the most constant factor in any orchestral score, while woodwinds, brass, percussion are the variables. Perhaps it is ironic that the fate of the string section is to play some of the least sonically interesting parts. Strings are often consigned to betraying their vast range of timbre and tone color to complement and support more strident colors of other sections of the orchestra.

Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s Saturday concert, Strings Attached, explored the vast array of tonal possibility in strings. Saturday evening’s concert began with a world premiere of Nathan Ball’s Stained Glass (2009). The first movement of a work conceived in three movements, Stained Glass depicts the sensual aesthetic of a cathedral; sweeping, quasi-impressionistic motives in the underscored strong melodic lines in the lower strings creating the impression of dimpled stain-glass depicting biblical narratives. Perhaps the least daring and most affable of the evening’s works, BMOP’s performance of Ball’s work showcased a traditional view of the string section — melodic lines were surprisingly clean and well-shaped in Gil Rose’s orchestra; mood shifts in the score were crisp and almost instantaneous.

Scott Wheeler’s 2004 work, Crazy Weather, presented a very different version of the string orchestra. Divided into two different orchestras in conversation with each other, Wheeler’s work ranges from the emotive and friendly to the starkly bleak. Crazy Weather showcased BMOP’s individual section with stunning clarity. A solid bass and cello section in the first movement led way to the static dispassionate Adagio second movement. Solo work throughout the entire work was strong and confident, highlighting nearly each of the different string timbres. Stephen Hartke’s Alvorada, Three Madrigals for String Orchestra (1983), followed, incorporating much of the instrumental exposition of the first half of the first half hour — presented a full and complete precis of the string instruments with richness and unique voicing.

The second half of Saturday’s concert treaded more daring waters. After intermission, BMOP began with Milton Babbitt’s Correspondences for String Orchestra and Synthesized Tape (1967). The oldest of the works performed in the concert, it was also the least accessible. This is not to say it was by any means uninteresting. Babbitt’s conception of the range and ability of a string orchestra rivals that of an electronica. A small-ensemble, serialist work for string orchestra and synthesized tape, Babbitt’s composition juxtaposes two worlds of sound with startling results. Certainly, the synthesized tape had its own shocking tone-color. However, none of it was rivaled by the vast array of colors produced by the small orchestra. One could not ignore the impressive abilities of the ensemble itself — staid and collected in the face of such technical adversity, members of BMOP performed Babbitt’s work with as much technical expertise and care to detail as to more melodic, accessible counterparts.

Betty Olivero’s Neharót, Neharót (2006/07) toed the line even further. Olivero’s work is surprisingly moving. Scored for solo violist (here, performed by the intended performer, Kim Kashkashian), and orchestral ensemble, including (but certainly not limited to) accordion, the pieces narrative is informed by mourning songs sung by women who have lost loved ones in the fighting between Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Israel. The first half of the piece reflected exactly this — a stark dystopia was somehow nostalgically infused with folk song and the lyric solo viola. The second half intensified this bond between the present and the folk-past. Kashkashian’s viola augmented the recordings of funeral songs sung by women from the Middle Eastern, African and Spainish traditions (ultimately becoming one of the voices itself), while the string orchestra hauntingly coalesced on the turn of a dime to passages from Claudio Monteverdi’s Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi and L’Orfeo. Striking in its ability to perform so many roles as a single ensemble, BMOP’s performance left the audience in a stunned silence that broke into violent applause.

It may be surprising for the evening to end with one of the most accessible works, Béla Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra (1940). Written near the end of his career, Bartók’s work somehow manages high drama while maintaining a sense of slapstick; a shaggy opening movement lends way to folk-melody and fiddle music. The brooding second movement gave way to the stark return to folk melodies in the third movement. BMOP, as with all the works in the evening, performed with nothing short of an ecstatic technicality that lent itself to the playfulness of Bartók’s work.

Bartók’s work, although the oldest of the works performed throughout the evening, was certainly the most obvious choice for the conclusion. It is Bartók who vaulted the traditions of incorporating folk melodies into concert music beyond the superficialities of borrowing melodies or incidental theme. It is Bartók too, who motivated the experimental use of string instruments in developing new sounds for the string instruments. It seemed appropriate to provide the perfect capstone for a concert showcasing the vast array of the string instrument by paying homage to Bartók, always implicitly present throughout each of the works performed in the evening, as a retrospective for how far music has come.