Music Review

Musica Viva’s new works take flight

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / September 28, 2009

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Boston Musica Viva and its director, Richard Pittman, are spending this season packing for a trip, gathering repertoire old and new for an all-American contemporary music residency in London next spring. Friday’s season opener gave a sampling, every piece featuring the group’s core sextet, a consistent cast that changed its stripes with each composer.

The newest sounds were, in order, first a world premiere, “Images,’’ by Richard Cornell, a local composer and BMV veteran (this was his fourth piece for the group). The first movement portrays a flock of unruly sparrows, Geoffrey Burleson’s rumbling piano and Robert Schulz’s cool-menace tom-toms keying the flinty aviary. Then an exotic-mobile nocturne, strings (violinist Bayla Keyes, cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws) giving high-harmonic shine, winds (flutist Ann Bobo, clarinetist William Kirkley) providing spacious chill, the strands seeming to wander before being gathered together with unassuming skill.

John Harbison’s “The Seven Ages,’’ a new six-song cycle on Louise Glück poems, received its Boston premiere: songs of love, but mostly in the past, blurry memories brought into unexpectedly clear presence. Harbison’s music gives the interior life expressionist, dissonant languor; the outside world intrudes with aggregates of tight musical hooks, the busyness just manic enough to spark poetic unease. Over a rich, saturated ensemble canvas, mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal brought a stylish lyricism to Harbison’s angular, arioso lines.

Michael Gandolfi wrote “Grooved Surfaces’’ for BMV in 1996. African-influenced minimalism, deflecting attention from its own repetitiveness, and Gandolfi’s instrumental transparency combine with offhand energy, an energy that picks up in the finale, cross-rhythms in cheerful cartoon cat-and-mouse conflict. The program’s classic was Elliott Carter’s 1983 “Triple Duo,’’ the composer’s middle-period thorny density given perhaps its most sardonically playful workout: sly, stylized gamesmanship. The group’s sharp-edged reading was maybe too unremitting (the close-up focus obscuring the long-term arc), but confident nonetheless.

A program-listed encore chased Carter’s rambunctious democratic argument with a more picturesque Americana. A “Country Dance’’ from Bernard Hoffler’s 2000 ballet “A Boston Cinderella’’ (another BMV commission) coursed with down-home fiddle-tune bounce. (Washboard? Washboard.) Light as a feather, but the accent was convincing: an innocent, ready to head abroad.

BOSTON MUSICA VIVA Richard Pittman, music director

At: Tsai Performance Center, Boston University, Friday

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