Boston: BMOP Making Waves

Julia Werntz
Julia Werntz
Photo by Michele Macrakis

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project has gone a long way toward making Boston feel like an important place to be. It’s inspiring to witness, not only an orchestra devoted entirely to contemporary music, but also this fresh paradigm of what an orchestra can be (reflected in the “Project” part of its name). BMOP aims to be an evolving and expanding entity, to have the flexibility of a chamber ensemble, and (like a few other groups) to expand its audience base beyond the typical concertgoers. It has added to its orchestral concert season informal, chamber “Club Concerts” at Boston’s Club Café on Columbus Ave., as well as collaborations with other organizations such as Opera Boston and the Boston CyberArts Festival.

On May 28, to a packed Jordan Hall, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project presented their “Takemitsu Tribute” concert, concluding their eighth season—a season which also featured concerts devoted to minimalism, pieces for solo voice and orchestra, Bernard Rands’s Canti Trilogy, and the annual “Boston Connection” concert, as well as three of the “Club Concerts.” On the first half of the program were Kaze-No-Oka, for biwa, shakuhachi, and orchestra—a BMOP commission and premiere by Japanese-American composer Ken Ueno (who has been making waves in Boston in recent years), and Water Concerto (1998), for percussion and orchestra, by Chinese composer Tan Dun. On the second half were Toru Takemitsu’s very popular and romantic 1957 Requiem, November Steps (the piece for biwa, shakuhachi, and orchestra which won him fame in 1967), and Three Film Scores, a 1994 suite consisting of “Music of Training and Rest” from José Torres (1959), “Funeral Music” from Black Rain (1989), and “Waltz” from The Face of Another (1966). The shakuhachi and biwa in Kaze-No-Oka and November Steps were played by special guests Kifu Mitsuhashi and Yukio Tanaka, from Japan.

The Takemitsu pieces chosen may have been a something of a “greatest hits” selection, and one which—aside from November Steps—seemed to showcase his European rather than his Japanese influences, but then how often do we get to hear any of Takemitsu’s works performed live? The “accessibility” of this selection may have been considered necessary in order to balance things out for the audience after the first half of the concert, which featured heavy, introspective music in Ueno’s piece, and loads of startling novelty in Tan’s. In any case, the music of these two composers reflected more overtly the influence of Takemitsu’s East/West innovations, his attention to sound, and his use of striking juxtapositions.

In Kaze-No-Oka Ueno drew upon the Japanese aesthetic principle of “shawari”—important to Takemitsu, and now to Ueno himself. To put this many-sided concept into a nutshell, “shawari” can translate as “beautiful noise,” “to touch,” or “obstacle,” and for the artist can mean the use of a deliberate “inconvenience,” desired for its creative potential. A relevant example can be heard in the metallic sounds, above the pitches themselves, which emanate from the biwa. Ueno applied this principle to his orchestral writing by combining the instruments in close, sometimes buzzing, microtonal sonorities, and using other instrumental noises—even white noise from the mouths of the players—creating very sensual “artifacts of sound,” as he calls them, with a structural rather than ornamental function. The biwa and shakuhachi duo itself was set against the Western orchestra in a dramatic manner. Unlike November Steps, in which the writing for the two instruments is temporally interspersed with the orchestral writing, in Kaze-No-Oka they appeared only after the orchestral section of the piece had fully concluded, in a cadenza which seemed to last as long as the first part of the piece. This was Ueno’s response to BMOP’s request that the shakuhachi and biwa part be usable as an independent composition, for another concert event. Many composers might shy away from separating these elements so completely, for fear of incongruity. But the tension at the moment of the duo’s entry, the sustained intensity and relatedness of the music despite the sudden drop in density, the surprising length of the cadenza—these things resulted in a piece with its own strong sense of balance and “meaning.”

Juxtaposition in the Water Concerto occurred in a different dimension. “Pure sounds”—a great menagerie of sounds arising from large, closely-miked basins of water with the theatrical use of wooden bowls, plastic cups, tubes, sticks, metal, bare hands—were pitted not only against the special sonorities and general pitch-orientedness of the Western orchestra, but against well-known Western harmonic devices as well. The orchestra at moments imitated the sounds from the percussion, and at other moments provided a familiar “functional harmonic” backdrop. But perhaps more compelling than these sorts of juxtapositions was the percussion writing itself—the setting of the element of water against so many materials—and the evocative sound and rhythm world Tan created. Soloist Robert Schultz, who performed his tremendous, choreographed part as if he’d known it all his life, brought this world to us vividly and with infectious pleasure.

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Composer Julia Werntz lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, jazz pianist Pandelis Karayorgis, and their daughter Anna. Since the mid ’90s her music, mostly chamber pieces, has been almost exclusively microtonal. Her music has been performed around the Northeastern United States and Europe, and may be heard, together with works by composer John Mallia, on the CD All In Your Mind (Capstone Records). She is currently working in collaboration with choreographer and dancer Christine Coppola and violinist Gregor Kitzis on a piece for solo violin and viola and dance, based on poems of E. E. Cummings.