A wide-ranging season finale

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / May 4, 2009
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

Closing out their 40th-anniversary season on Friday, Richard Pittman and Boston Musica Viva offered a traditional new-music prix fixe: a world premiere, a revisited rarity, and an established classic. The premiere intrigued, while both the rarity and the classic justified their status.

Joseph Schwantner's 1973 "In Aeternum (Consortium IV)" was an early BMV commission; everything about the atmospheric, atonal mosaic (including its title) carries a retro-new-music feel. There are arresting moments: a volatile cello aria over the twilight glint of antique cymbals and gongs resonating in water; flute, cello, and vibraphone swooping down rapid scales into silence. But even with a scrupulous performance - especially from percussionist Dean Anderson, setting the scene, and cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws, dispatching his leading role with confidence - the piece remained a diffuse grab bag.

The evening's premiere, "history of the world in seven acts," put the ensemble in the pit and brought down a screen for a multimedia collaboration. Artist/scientist Jonathan Bachrach's dynamic computer animation sets geometric forms in fluid algorithmic dances; imagine an Olympic opening ceremony performed by wire-frame cubes. Michael Gandolfi's music, for six players and electronics, follows the visual rhythms with stratified repetitive patterns, alternating between diatonic serenity and cool-jazz spikiness. It's an engaging meditation - somewhat low-impact, but unassumingly non-didactic.

It might seem to stretch the term to call Arnold Schoenberg's 1912 "Pierrot Lunaire" new music, but not only did it establish a sound for contemporary chamber music that continues to echo, when it's done supremely well, as it was here, it still surprises with its freshness and immediacy.

Lucy Shelton (in a marvelous sequined dress, straight out of a Klimt painting) effectively used the leeway of Schoenberg's half-speech, half-song narration to shape the dramatic arc: elegantly mocking, theatrical narration in the first septet of Albert Giraud's 21 poems; more intensely grotesque in the blood-drenched second part, the words shot out in cackling torrents; then the final part near-sung, one surrealistic comic aria after another. But even more, Shelton made the hothouse stylization of Schoenberg's setting seamless and natural.

The players (flutist Ann Bobo, clarinetist William Kirkley, Bayla Keyes on violin and viola, Müller-Szeraws, and pianist Geoffrey Burleson) were sharp and keen; Pittman maintained a fluent, cinematic pace. In music that can easily descend into murky decadence, BMV delivered zealous clarity. Schoenberg - as he was wont to do - threw down a gauntlet that composers have been picking up ever since.

BOSTON MUSICA VIVA Richard Pittman, music director,

with Lucy Shelton, Sprechstimme

At: Tsai Performance Center, Boston University, Friday