Scrappy and Invaluable, a unique musical ensemble returns
BOSTON — It’s been a theme of this troubled time: if the pandemic has ruined your big birthday bash, just celebrate a year (or two) later.
The Boston Modern Orchestra Project – BMOP, universally – turned 25 last April. But this unique and invaluable ensemble, which, under the direction of its founding conductor Gil Rose, offers crucial performances and recordings of contemporary scores and long-ignored, often American, music of the past 100 years, has only had the chance to look forward to that earlier Friday, with a sprawling free concert here at Symphony Hall.
The program was endearing and eccentric though thoughtful, featuring organist Paul Jacobs in Stephen Paulus’ Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra (2004), with sensitive and rather haunting scores, and Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie concertante (1926) for the same forces. These were paired with an organ work rewritten for orchestra – Elgar’s 1922 arrangement of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor – and an orchestral work later to be rewritten for organ: “The Ascension”. by Messiaen (1933).
If this wasn’t exactly a quintessential BMOP gig – one might have expected Aaron Copland or Lou Harrison instead of Jongen, and certainly a living songwriter, if expectations were something Rose cared about – it was always distinctively creative, often excellent and always committed. It was a happy reminder of the powerful force this group of freelancers has become in music that few other bands dare to touch.
Even so, it was not just cause for celebration, but also cause for reflection, including on the financial and infrastructural inequities shaping our post-pandemic musical emergence.
Two years ago, it was widely predicted that some smaller sets would fold in the face of public health restrictions, and possibly even some larger ones. Although individual musicians have struggled desperately and some have left their chosen profession, economic aid programs have largely prevented this end result at the institutional level, even though the effects will be felt everywhere for years to come.
Large orchestras have been able to get back on their feet relatively quickly, albeit unstablely: Friday afternoon I heard Herbert Blomstedt conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose resources have enabled him to maintain a virtually full program this season.
Small sets were forced or chose to take longer. Employing freelancers who are frequently exposed to the virus while traveling on business, these groups face the costs of underwriting testing; difficulties in finding short-term replacements; and the risks of cancellation – if, that is, their usual places are available for rent. Aside from Symphony Hall, many larger halls that were once in regular use in Boston are under the control of universities, which have imposed strict restrictions on outside groups in the name of student protection.
“Big institutions just have a different reality,” Rose said in an interview days before the gig, noting that he was able to avoid firing one of his five staffers.
“I’ve told a lot of freelancers that it’s going to be very tough on the players in the first year, and the second year is going to be tough on the organizations,” he added. “The first year, nobody was really producing that much, but they were getting government aid and the foundations were stepping up, so you were getting more income than you normally would, and you weren’t spending as much. Now that it’s all stopped, it feels like reality is coming.
BMOP has always been a distinctive set, designed in slight opposition to the subscription season model, and remarkably adept at fundraising. While it has never been short of critical acclaim, it has rarely garnered a large following – although Friday was an uplifting, if not lucrative, exception.
“When I started this thing, everyone thought it was new music, but it was still a model orchestra,” Rose said, nodding at the part. “project” named BMOP. “I’m glad I’m not counting on a ‘Nutcracker’ or a ‘Messiah’.”
Instead, BMOP relies on its award-winning catalog of recordings. Rose’s eclectic tastes had been documented in 69 recordings on her own BMOP/sound label prior to March 2020, including the three commissions – Lisa Bielawa’s ‘In medias res’, Andrew Norman’s ‘Play’ and ‘A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams,” by Lei Liang. the last two winners of the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize — which the orchestra will perform in its Carnegie Hall debut in the spring of 2023.
Rather than experiment with streaming or community gigs, Rose has spent the pandemic clearing up a huge backlog of audio files that had built up over more than a decade – releasing 16 more recordings and in June, restarting sessions. at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Mass.
BMOP’s albums are a mix of forgotten gems and impressive new music, with a valiant focus on Boston composers and dizzying stylistic diversity, encompassing Charles Wuorinen and Matthew Aucoin. A press for greater diversity is coming: Rose’s next big project, a five-year effort to present and record operas by black composers Anthony Davis, Nkeiru Okoye, William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay and Jonathan Bailey Holland, was , he said, in the works long before the settling of accounts with the racism that has swept the music industry since the death of George Floyd.
It is for the future; on Friday, the focus was on the past. If Jongen needed a bit more tonal depth and lyrical bloom for his Symphonie Concertante to really shine, it made Paulus’ Grand Concerto stand out in comparison. The appealing work was his third organ concerto, and it proves he is a master of the genre; Jacobs’ clever recordings at Symphony Hall’s famous but rarely heard Aeolian-Skinner suggest that there haven’t been many composers with a similar ease at blending the organ into the orchestral palette while giving the instrument a space to shine.
It was exactly the kind of insight BMOP specializes in, a chance to grapple with the music that other ensembles let wither away. Long may this group continue.