Richard Pittman's Boston Musica Viva's delightful season-opening program at the Tsai Center on September 28 included world premieres by three composers who weren't born yet when BMV began 44 years ago. These three pieces — Eric Segerstrom's Indecisive Dances, Derek Hurst's Pas de Trois, and Mark Berger's Dream Dances — were the Northeast regional semi-finalists in the Rapido! contest, the Atlanta Chamber Players' nationwide challenge to composers to write a short piece within a 14-day time limit. The winner gets a $7500 commission. The pieces, all for piano, violin, cello, and oboe, had to include two dances.
After playing the Berger, Pittman announced that the ensemble had made a mistake, and so they'd play it again. Then the group decided that to be completely fair, they also had to play the other two pieces again. They all sounded tighter and sharper the second time. The three judges — composers John Harbison, Martin Brody, and Sam Headrick — apparently each had a different favorite, but by some formula, Berger's charmer won. All three were attractive and inventive. I'd have chosen the Hurst, for its greater ambition, intricate structure, and darker, more personal sound.
The program began with two pieces from older BMV commissions: the late Peter Lieberson's 1988 Raising the Gaze, and Andy Vores's "lugubrious confection," Umberhulk (2000), suggested by a sleeping Dungeons & Dragons monster. The Lieberson seemed a chaotic eight-minute assemblage, composed, he said, like "brush strokes in thick black ink," though I thought more garish and kaleidoscopic. The Vores was fun — in the first part, the sleeping monster snores and growls at the lowest end of the sonic spectrum, including a viola (Gabriela Diaz) being de-tuned as it's plucked and a shaken can of loose stones (Robert Schulz). It ends with an exhilarating chase.
The program highlight was John Harbison's Mirabai Songs (1982-83), six poems by the 16th-century Indian mystic who refused to join her dead husband on the customary pyre, then went to sing on street corners. The settings are elusively melodic, tough, and prismatically Eastern. I'll never forget soprano Susan Larson at the premiere singing with blistering irony and humor: "I have felt the swaying of the elephant's shoulders;/And now you want me to ride on a jackass? Try to be serious." Mezzo-soprano Krista River's rendition seems a work in progress, beautifully sung and tough-minded, but not yet completely nuanced. Pittman and the ensemble were exemplary.
The BMV's "Allusions" (Curtis Hughes, Schoenberg, and William Kraft) is at BU's Tsai Center 685 Comm Ave, Boston, November 16 :: 8 pm :: $9 (students) – $26 :: 617.354.6910 or bmv.org