New England’s Prospect: The Second Hand Unwinds—A 45th Season for Boston Musica Viva

Boston Musica Viva, the city’s oldest new music group, might have been tempted to, say, recapitulate its first program from February 1970. Instead, the year’s concerts are filled with relatively recent music, with a premiere for each—the kind of inner effort, one might say, by which new music stays new.

Written By

Matthew Guerrieri

Boston Musica Viva

Boston Musica Viva
Photo by Robert Harding Pittman

It is a bit of a tightrope for a new music group to celebrate an anniversary, if you believe Henri Bergson. The French philosopher located the source of much of the philosophical angst surrounding free will and causality at the difference point between experienced duration and measured time. “Sometimes we think particularly of the regular succession of physical phenomena and of the kind of inner effort by which one becomes another,” he wrote, “sometimes we fix our mind on the absolute regularity of these phenomena, and from the idea of regularity we pass by imperceptible steps to that of mathematical necessity, which excludes duration understood in the first way.” In other words: sometimes we intuitively sense a progression of events through time, sometimes we measure it with a clock. “And we do not see any harm in letting these two conceptions blend into one another, and in assigning greater importance to the one or the other according as we are more or less concerned with the interests of science.” But the clock’s precision distorts: “to apply the principle of causality, in this ambiguous form, to the succession of conscious states, is uselessly and wantonly to run into inextricable difficulties.”

Boston Musica Viva, the city’s oldest new music group, is marking its 45th season with, it would seem, a somewhat Bergsonian regard for the arbitrariness of that round-ish number. The group might have been tempted to, say, recapitulate its first concert (from February 1970: Bolcom’s Session III, Huber’s Askese, the Webern Pierrot-ensemble arrangement of Schonberg’s op. 9 Chamber Symphony, and Foss’s Time Cycle). But even institutions can’t claim absolute regularity—indeed, conductor Richard Pittman is the only performer remaining from that 1970 edition of the group. So instead, the year’s concerts are filled with relatively recent music, with a premiere for each—the kind of inner effort, one might say, by which new music stays new.
Their concert on November 16, at the Longy School of Music, had an added layer of temporal consideration. Charles Zoll’s Bailes encima del escritorio de nuestra juventúd (“Dances atop the school desk of our youth”) was the winner of this year’s Rapido! composition contest (started by the Atlanta Chamber Players and administered by a consortium that includes BMV, Fifth House Ensemble, Voices of Change, and the Left Coast Ensemble). The rules are all about speed: composers get a theme (dance, this time around), an ensemble (oboe, violin, cello, piano), and two weeks to deliver a score. The results might be predicted from the parameters: Zoll’s piece, in five movements, had lots of ostinati, lots of instruments imitating other instruments (cello as string bass, oboe as clarinet, and so on), lots of filled-out ABA forms.

The Bailes were unremittingly pleasant, though almost frictionlessly so; a busy-but-circumscribed bit of flamenco, a moody-but-smooth tango, a bit of awfully well-behaved jazz, even with Geoffrey Burleson working the inside of the piano with a couple of mallets. The performance (Burleson with violinist Jae Young Cosmos Lee, cellist Jan Müller-Szeraws, and oboist Miri Kudo), skittish at first, settled into a groove of such easiness that the only real drama was a page-turning snafu (which warmed my heart). I had heard some of the other Rapido! entries in a preliminary round; I can’t really say that Zoll’s winner (of which the first two movements formed his original entry) was more striking than any of those other pieces, just perhaps more finished—a tribute to the virtues of watching the clock.

The world premiere on Saturday’s concert, Fabrication 15: Amplification by Andy Vores, was a more discursive roam through the temporal workshop. Eventually, there will be 32 Fabrications, for a variety of forces, each built around a particular notion or metaphor; Fabrication 15 is all about speeding up and slowing down, alternately emphasizing the local and the global from both a performing and listening standpoint. At its center is an older Vores piece, Slow Peacherine Rag, a Scott Joplin deconstruction inspired by his overhearing such music being practiced at half-speed on a hot, half-speed-ish sort of day: the bouncy rhythms and cadences are stretched out, sliced up, interspersed with longueurs and languors. The Rag takes its place at the center of Fabrications 15, arranged for the instrumental sextet—Lee, Müller-Szeraws, and Burleson joined by Lisa Hennessy (flutes), William Kirkley (clarinets), and Robert Schulz (percussion)—but the frame, a riot of clockworks in and out of sync with each other—imperceptible steps to mathematical necessity, maybe—grows into a thick, busy impasto. The constant here is the sense of curiosity, the way Vores so manifestly loves his sounds: the piano’s decay, the clang of metallic percussion, the possibilities of fast, running flute lines and needle-nosed altissimo clarinet. Vores has a knack for music that feels determined without feeling deterministic.

The concert’s nod to retrospection only went back to 2000 and Thea Musgrave’s one man, one act opera The Mocking-Bird (an adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s short story) originally commissioned by BMV. During the Civil War, Private Grayrock (baritone David Kravitz) strays behind enemy lines; firing his rifle out of fear, he unwittingly precipitates a skirmish, causing him to muse bitterly on the incompetence of his officers, the vagaries of his life, his long-lost brother—the dividing lines of class and conflict and the vagaries of causality. The music (scored for the same ensemble as the Vores) is both romantically old-fashioned and modernistically fluid. Musgrave is not afraid of obvious symbolisms, be they illustrative (snare drums and piccolo reveilles) or structural (minor-key present versus major-key memories, flatted sixth and seventh scale degrees constantly weighing down the tonality, dragging it away from resolution and a tonicized home). And what little plot there is is both conspicuously exposited and eminently predictable.

But, like all ghost stories (and The Mocking-Bird is a ghost story, the specter of the past forever haunting Grayrock’s present), the juice is in the telling, and this performance’s telling was big, straightforward, sincere. (Kravitz was especially good, surmounting the part’s wordiness and unabashed expressive escalations with conviction.) Musgrave gives the proceedings a formal richness and efficiency that don’t so much plumb the drama of the story as amplify the insistent necessity of its reiteration. If humanity is determined wantonly to run into the same old inextricable difficulties, Musgrave’s opera hints, the same old stories will never see their time pass.