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The sound of surprise
Looking for Boston’s Best
By Jon Garelick

The Boston-based saxophone improviser (I hesitate to call him “jazz musician,” although he sometimes does play free jazz) David Gross once taught me an important lesson: you can’t play what you don’t know how to play. In other words, there’s only so much newness in “new music.” Gross refers to his “bag of tricks,” the things he knows how to do, or has figured out how to do, in order to make the music he wants to make. So you may be surprised at your first gdg concert (the name Gross now plays under) to hear him play what sounds like little more than whooshing air, or rattle the saxophone keys with his plastic mouthpiece cover. But hear him a few times and you get used to the idea that Gross’s vocabulary — as odd as it may be in traditional music-making terms — is standard for him. And, after a few concerts of very quiet music, that vocabulary adds up to a kind of syntax. Even Gross doesn’t deny form: his music unfolds in time, after all, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And, as he’s quick to point out, even though he doesn’t think of himself as “telling a story” when he plays, he does think of what’s going to happen next, and how he’s going to end. All of which is a way of saying that surprise can come from anywhere.

When it comes to surprise, the “best band in Boston” these days is probably the BSO. We all have preconceptions about what a symphony orchestra is supposed to sound like. Maybe in another context I wouldn’t have been so surprised, but I still remember the February 2002 concert, James Levine’s first after being announced as new music director, when he followed up Dvorák’s Carnival overture, Charles Wuorinen’s 1971 Grand Bamboula for string orchestra, and Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony with Hungarian-German composer György Ligeti’s 1969 Ramifications for string orchestra. The players at first “played” without touching their strings, then brought the sound into focus, building a series of crescendos. I was on the edge of my seat — both at the suspense created by the music, and in wonder that a major symphony orchestra, playing in Symphony Hall, was allowed to do this. For those of us in Boston who spend most of our live-concert hours listening to pop and jazz, the BSO offers a reminder of what we’re listening for. In the following pages: you and our editors pick what’s new — or old — and full of surprise.