Oooh-weee-oooh: Boston Modern Orchestra Project unveils concertos for theremin and other offbeat protagonists

January 28, 2012
By David Wright

Leon Theremin performing on the instrument that bears his name

If you’re one of those concertgoers who look forward most to the concerto, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, led by its artistic director Gil Rose, had a concert for you Friday night at Jordan Hall.

Five solo concertos or concerto-like works by present-day composers, including a world premiere and a U.S. premiere, made up a program the orchestra titled “Strange Bedfellows” — reflecting how rarely the evening’s featured instruments—respectively, viola, electric guitar, mandolin, theremin, and horn—are invited to step out in front of the orchestra. (It doesn’t mean they actually get in the same score together, although a Concerto for Mandolin and Theremin would definitely be diverting.)

Eric Chaslow’s Horn Concerto, the product of a decades-long friendship between the composer and hornist Bruno Schneider, was introduced to the world as the closing work of Friday night’s program, with Schneider as soloist.  The work observes some conventions of concerto form and departs from others; its four concise movements include not one but two slow movements in the middle, and its first movement is not a broad sonata-allegro but a jumpy, syncopated affair in which the soloist is mostly limited to comments from the periphery.

The horn comes into its own in the slow movements, however, first spreading its autumnal glow over a rolling landscape of orchestral sounds, then (in a movement marked simply “Distant”) playing a muted meditation among cirrus clouds of high strings.  The jumpy feeling returns in the last movement, but this time the horn takes the lead, humorously driving the music forward at first, then closing the work quietly and thoughtfully.  Throughout the piece, Schneider’s sureness of attack, burnished tone, and fine legato brought the music vividly to life.

Andrew Norman, presently composer-in-residence of BMOP and before that Composer for the City of Heidelberg, Germany, composed Air: for theremin and orchestra in 2011 for thereminist Carolina Eyck and the Heidelberg Philharmonic.  The work’s U.S. premiere came Friday night, with Dalit Warshaw as soloist.

The piece’s title says something about the music’s lyrical character, and also about the technique of playing the theremin, an electronic instrument whose pitch and dynamics are controlled by moving the hands in space.  The strange spectacle of a musician standing rigid onstage (since any spontaneous body movement would produce unwanted changes in the sound) and making tones by highly-controlled arm motions, combined with the instrument’s not-quite-human vocal sound, introduces a kind of campy, mad-scientist vibe that composer Norman, in a program note, calls “an odd place to inhabit.”

But inhabit it he does, mostly restraining the theramin’s natural tendency to swoop and slide in glissandos—although soloist Warshaw’s sense of pitch seemed rather subjective in the opening bars—and drawing out a lyrical melody, lightly accompanied by a string orchestra with harp, piano, and percussion added for a touch of sparkle.  At the aria’s expressive climax, the orchestra surges and the theremin finally cuts loose with some real sci-fi wows and squeals, to appreciative titters from the audience Friday night. The piece closes quietly, with sly dialogues of the theremin with glissando violins, and with the piano, which can’t slide the notes but can sustain a whole blur of them.

Expertly controlling her instrument, Warshaw played it straight throughout—so straight, in fact, that her expressionless face, turned full to the audience, became part of the weirdness of it all.

Because even a modern orchestra must pay respect to the classics, Friday’s concert began with Luciano Berio’s Chemins II su Sequenza VI for viola and an eight-piece chamber ensemble, composed way back in 1967.  This piece’s most notable feature is the persistent quadruple-stop tremolo that keeps the soloist’s right arm vibrating for page after page of the score.  Eventually relief (?) arrives in the form of Paganini-like pyrotechnics far up the fingerboard.  A mixed ensemble (including harp, keyboard and percussion) provides a lacy-sounding, undulating backdrop.  Violist John Stutz executed the taxing solo part with a mixture of aplomb and intensity.

In the case of Keeril Makan’s Dream Lightly for electric guitar and orchestra, the title exactly describes the sensation of listening to the piece.  Listeners looking for Eric Clapton licks are referred to their CD collection; this piece uses the electric guitar as a generator of chime-like harmonic tones that float dreamily through the orchestral texture like glass balls in space.  The slight pitch difference between the guitar’s natural harmonics and the orchestra’s tempered tuning evokes otherworldly, surreal sensations.  Midway through the piece, gentle guitar strums and restless stirrings in the orchestra suggest a different phase of sleep.  Guitarist Seth Josel, for whom the piece was written in 2008, attended to every expressive nuance in this subtle score.

Also true to its title, Avner Dorman’s Mandolin Concerto was the evening’s most concerto-like work, in the traditional sense of displaying the solo instrument’s lyrical and athletic sides.  Another conventional feature is the three movement-like sections, although the customary tempo scheme is reversed, to slow-fast-slow.  Like the Berio piece, it begins with long stretches of strumming tremolo for the soloist, but moves on from there to a rapt aria over a wash of sound from the all-string orchestra.  The middle section is all fiery middle-eastern scales and syncopations—Astor Piazzolla comes to Lebanon.  The work closes in a dreamy atmosphere, the soloist duetting with a single violin and a single viola, then fading away amid special effects created by retuning while playing and a bottleneck slide.  The piece was commissioned in 2006 by mandolinist Avi Avital, who performed it Friday night with fire, soul, and virtuosity.

Throughout the evening, the alert BMOP players seemed to revel in the sonic effects and textures conductor Rose drew from them.  One final note: If what you like about concertos is the big bang at the end, maybe this concert wasn’t for you after all. All five works ended triple-pianissimo, fading to silence.

The next BMOP event is a performance of John Austin’s opera Heloise and Abelard 4 p.m. Sunday, January 29, at the Memorial Church of Harvard University.; Harvard box office: 617-496-2222.

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