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The Skills, The Skulls Beneath the Skin

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/15/2023 -  
Lisa Bielawa: In medias res
Lei Liang; A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams
Andrew Norman: Play

Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose (Artistic Director and Conductor)

G. Rose/L. Bielawa (© Kathy Wittman/Courtesy of the Artist

A mountain looks this way close by, another way a few miles away...Its shapes change at every step...Thus one must realize that a mountain contains in itself the shape of several dozen or a hundred mountains.
Guo Xi (11th Century, quoted in Lei Lang’s program notes)

Boston has come a long long way since their Police Department stopped a concert because the played Igor Stravinsky’s “radical” arrangement of Star Spangled Banner. And nothing showed their spacious change like the three works commissioned by and played by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project with its masterful Artistic-Director Conductor Gil Rose.

These were massive orchestral pieces. The duration of each was between 25‑45 minutes. But this gave not the slightest indication of the great orchestral forces, the changes of mood and emotion, the resounding reflections of pounding drums, the transformation of strings and...and the silences.

Yes, those long silences in Lei Liang’s A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams.

The inspiring forces were the paintings of Huang Binhong, who, over nearly ten decades created visually and philosophical landscape paintings. Paintings to be given a sonic voice in Lei Liang’s huge orchestral/electronic palette.

A confession. Living in Hong Kong for many years, I studied their orchestral commissions of works from both the Territory and the PRC. Nearly all dealt with nature, they nearly all had birdcalls and chattering cicadas. But none–absolutely none–had the huge mental and aural landscapes given by Lei Liang. The orchestral forces of winds, brass and–above all–percussion–played either with musical depth or trembling whispers.

What had we here? Mr. Liang brought forth eerie melodies, flashes of lightning, the visions of mountains on mountains, the aural equivalent of stepping through the words on a dark dark night, listening to rain and animals and silences. Dark silences, where conductor Rose allowed the tensions to increase.

This was hardly an original concept. From Strauss’s Alpine Symphony to Ruggles’ Men and Mountains to a dozen Hovhaness works (the latter also based on Asian paintings), nature radiates. But in this work, Mr. Liang has depicted two opposing forces. The percussive mountains and the gentle orchestral streams. Both were forceful pictures of nature outside and in ourselves.

Proceeding this was another huge work for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Lisa Bielawa’s In medias res. The Latin title, “in the middle of a plot”, was a literary equivalent of her Concerto for Orchestra. Ms. Bielawa had written solo pieces for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project over three years as composer-in-residence. Here, she aggregated the smaller work, offered them to solos and consorts, and provided an amazing work of noises and clarion calls. At times shattering moments of anarchy (those these were apparently all notated out: no aleatory shortcuts), at times solos (remember this is an orchestral concerto), and totally a work of brilliant colors, the most remarkable coloration.

L. Liang/A. Norman

The final work, Andrew Norman’s Play, deserved his program notes. “Play” being “different ideas...free will. Expressions in the internet age where cyber-bullying and real-world violence converge.”

How did Mr. Norman put this into music? First, as he wrote, with percussion bullying an orchestra. And from the start we had what seemed like total lawlessness. How was one to put up with clarion calls over the whole ensemble, of solo strings each playing different sounds, the bows playing tremolos and glissandi, motion bouncing, winds and brass shouting each other down, trombone calls like the voice of doom.

Mr. Norman’s mastery simply couldn’t continue over 45 minutes and three-symphonic movements, could it? No, the idea of Play was the ideas of power and relationship. In the third movement, then, he didn’t quiet down the orchestra–they still played with vociferous grandeur–but the mood changed dramatically.

In fact, Mr. Norman gave us a finale which could have come from (gulp) a Sibelius symphony! Not that the clashes of the opening were forgotten. But Mr. Rose managed to tame his orchestra. Not tame as chasten. But tame like a whip‑lashing tiger‑tamer who knows–as did these three composers–that beneath the surface of life and music is both radiance and rage.

Harry Rolnick



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