Scrappy and Invaluable, a Unique Music Ensemble Returns

BOSTON — It has been a theme of this troubled time: If the pandemic has ruined your big birthday party, simply celebrate a year (or two) later.

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project — BMOP, universally — turned 25 last April. But this unique, invaluable ensemble, which under its founding conductor Gil Rose offers performances and crucial recordings of contemporary scores and long-ignored, often American music from the past 100 years, only got the chance to make merry earlier on Friday, with a sprawling free concert here at Symphony Hall.

The program was an endearingly eccentric if thoughtful one, starring the organist Paul Jacobs in Stephen Paulus’s sensitively scored, rather bewitching Grand Concerto for organ and orchestra (2004) and Joseph Jongen’s entertainingly vast Symphonie Concertante (1926) for the same forces. Those were paired with an organ work rewritten for orchestra — Elgar’s 1922 arrangement of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in C minor — and an orchestral work that would later be rewritten for organ: Messiaen’s early, lovely “L’Ascension” (1933).

If it was not exactly a quintessential BMOP concert — one might have expected Aaron Copland or Lou Harrison instead of Jongen, and certainly a living composer, if expectations were something Rose bothered himself with — it was still characteristically creative, often excellent and always committed. It was a happy reminder of what a potent force this band of freelancers has become in music that few other groups dare touch.

Even so, this was not just a cause for celebration, but also for reflection — not least on the financial and infrastructural inequities that are shaping our musical emergence from the pandemic.

Two years ago, it was widely predicted that some smaller ensembles would fold in the face of public health restrictions, and perhaps even some larger ones. Although individual musicians have struggled desperately, and some have left their chosen profession, economic assistance programs largely forestalled that ultimate outcome at the institutional level, though the effects will be felt everywhere for years.

Major orchestras have been able to get back on their feet relatively quickly, if unsteadily: On Friday afternoon, I heard Herbert Blomstedt conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose resources have allowed it to maintain a basically full schedule this season.

Smaller ensembles have been forced, or have chosen, to take more time. Employing freelancers who encounter frequent exposure to the virus as they travel for work, these groups face the costs of underwriting testing; the difficulties of finding replacements at short notice; and the risks of cancellation — if, that is, their habitual venues are available for rent at all. Symphony Hall aside, many larger halls that once were in regular use in Boston are under the control of universities, which have imposed stringent restrictions on outside groups in the name of protecting students.

Rose in the Granoff Music Center at Tufts University in 2015. “When I started this thing, everybody thought it was about new music, but it was always about an orchestra model,” he said of BMOP. “I’m glad that I don’t rely on a ‘Nutcracker’ or a ‘Messiah.’”Credit…Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times

“The big institutions just have a different reality,” Rose said in an interview a few days before the concert, noting that he has been able to avoid laying off any of his five staff members.

“I said to a lot of freelancers that it was going to be really hard on the players the first year, and the second year was going to be hard on the organizations,” he added. “In the first year, nobody was really producing that much, but they were getting government aid and foundations were stepping up, so you were getting more income than you normally would, and not spending as much. Now that’s all stopped, it feels like reality is coming.”

BMOP has always been a distinctive ensemble, conceived in lean opposition to the subscription season model, and remarkably competent at raising funds. Although it has never been short of critical acclaim, it has rarely drawn large audiences — though Friday was a gladdening, if not a lucrative, exception.

“When I started this thing, everybody thought it was about new music, but it was always about an orchestra model,” Rose said, nodding to the “project” part of BMOP’s name. “I’m glad that I don’t rely on a ‘Nutcracker’ or a ‘Messiah.’”

What BMOP has come to rely on instead is its award-winning catalog of recordings. Rose’s eclectic tastes had been documented in 69 recordings on his own BMOP/sound label before March 2020, including the three commissions — Lisa Bielawa’s “In medias res,” Andrew Norman’s “Play” and Lei Liang’s “A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams,” the last two winners of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award — that the orchestra will perform at its Carnegie Hall debut in spring 2023.

Rather than experimenting with streaming or community concerts, Rose spent the pandemic clearing a huge backlog of audio files that had built up over more than a decade — releasing 16 more recordings, and in June restarting sessions at Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Mass.

BMOP’s albums are a mix of forgotten gems and impressive new music, with a valiant focus on Boston composers and a giddy stylistic diversity, encompassing Charles Wuorinen and Matthew Aucoin. A press into a broader diversity is coming: Rose’s next big project, a five-year effort to present and record operas by the Black composers Anthony Davis, Nkeiru Okoye, William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay and Jonathan Bailey Holland, was, he said, in the works long before the reckoning with racism that has swept the music industry since the death of George Floyd.

BMOP turned 25 last April, but only got the chance to celebrate on Friday with a free concert at Symphony Hall.Credit…Sam Brewer

That’s for the future; on Friday, the focus was on the past. If Jongen needed a little more tonal depth and lyrical bloom for his Symphonie Concertante to really shine, that made Paulus’s Grand Concerto benefit by comparison. The attractive work was his third concerto for organ, and it proves him a master of the genre; Jacobs’s smart registrations at Symphony Hall’s famed but rarely heard Aeolian-Skinner suggested that there have not been many composers with similar facility at blending the organ into the orchestral palette while also giving the instrument space to shine.

It was exactly the kind of insight in which BMOP specializes, a chance to grapple with music that other ensembles leave to wither. Long may this group continue.

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