Stopping time

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  February 2, 2010

MacMillan's music emphasizes static ritual, with little impulse to dramatize the story. Jesus (the powerful British baritone Christopher Maltman) sings in a dehumanizing cantorial drone — maybe the least likable Jesus in the repertory: pompous, self-important, angry. A small part of the chorus (the Tanglewood Festival Chorus) serves as narrator, and the larger choral forces represent all the other characters. After an hour of being badgered (and bored?) by the heavy rhetoric, pounding drums, and blasting brass, a substantial part of the audience bailed out at intermission, missing the best music, which comes in the last half-hour: a lovely section counterpointing the Stabat Mater with the Coventry Carol, and a haunting orchestral postlude.

The following week, another Scotsman was in town: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies joined a list of celebrated composers invited by the New England Conservatory to work with its various levels of student orchestras and composers, in a program organized by composer Rodney Lister and called "Today's Youth Perform Today's Music." One concert was devoted almost entirely to Sir Peter (better known as "Max"), whose music for children combines tuneful, folklike simplicity with sophisticated rhythms and harmonies that also challenge the players and can be enjoyed by adults. Charming songs were sung by NEC's Children's Chorus, with some adorable eurythmics for tiny tots in alligator and bear costumes. The program ended with Steven Karidoyanes leading the NEC Youth Symphony (and a bagpiper) in the inebriated charmer Max wrote for the Boston Pops in 1985, An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise. The composer seemed at least as pleased as everyone else.

The Boston Chamber Music Society, now directed by violist Marcus Thompson, completed a joint venture with MIT — a three-weekend symposium of panels and concerts on the subject of "Musical Time" — with a lively presentation at Kresge Auditorium. Beethoven scholar Lewis Lockwood gave a witty and illuminating talk on the checkered history of the metronome, Paul Matisse spoke about his musical sculptures (his Kendall Band can be found in the Kendall Square Red Line T-stop), and Stephen Tapscott read from his series of poems about the experimental 19th-century stop-motion photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

Demonstrating the multiple layers of musical time with a memorable solo rendition of the quintet from West Side Story, MIT professor (and soprano) Ellen Harris prepared us for the ensuing concert, which featured exceptional performances by oboist Peggy Pearson, violinist Harumi Rhodes, Thompson, and cellist Joshua Gordon in the Mozart Oboe Quartet; Pearson, Thompson, and Mihai Lee in Charles Loeffler's gorgeous pair of Rhapsodies (a major discovery); Rhodes and Lee in William Grant Still's delightful Suite for Violin and Piano, which was inspired by three African-American sculptures; and the late Lukas Foss's modernist chamber masterpiece, Time Cycle, with former Boston soprano Judith Kellock singing texts by Auden, Housman, Kafka, and Nietzsche (an utterly different setting of the poem Mahler uses in his Third Symphony). Percussionist Robert Schulz was the indispensable timekeeper.

Gil Rose led his Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) in a fascinating concert of wind music ("Band in Boston"), from Stravinsky's solemn and insinuating 1920 elegy for Debussy, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, to Percy Grainger's bizarre 1953 dirge, The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart (with an organ among the winds), to Howard Meltzer's groovy (one of his own markings) recent Privacy, with stellar pianist Ursula Oppens. There was also West Coaster Wayne Peterson's fast-driving (and somewhat tedious) And the Winds Shall Blow (1994), with the Prism saxophone quartet, and Joseph Schwantner's compellingly percussive Recoil (2004).

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