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Childís play
Tod Machoverís Toy Symphony, plus the BPO and the BSO in their season finales

Composer Tod Machoverís latest project is pedagogical as well as æsthetic. The father of two small children, heís been interested in how to get a childís natural musical impulse to take form the way a childís drawing might, without the technical apparatus musical composition seems to require. At the MIT Media Lab, where he is professor of " Music & Media, " heís been working with composers and computer technicians to create new electronic instruments and a computer program that allows someone to " draw " musical lines and harmonies without knowing how to read music. The fruits of this " creative project for children and orchestra " have met with great success in Europe. On a rainy Saturday evening at MITís Kresge Auditorium, the opening of Bostonís biennial Cyberarts Festival, a full house ó with a much younger median age than youíd find at most concerts ó gathered to hear compositions by young (and very young) composers, pieces that included child performers, and two pieces by Machover himself ó in fact, the American premiere of the central work of this project, his Toy Symphony.

Before the concert, crowds in the lobby surrounded demonstrations of the new software and the instruments: " music shapers, " squeezable hand-sized balls like beanbags that emit a variety of electronic noises, and " beatbugs, " like big antennaíd ladybugs, which in interaction with computers and other beatbugs create a complex variety of percussive rhythms.

Machover himself was the genial host. Mary Farbood, the MIT PhD candidate who created the Hyperscore program, was up in the sound booth demonstrating the compositional process on a large projected computer screen. " You turned on the harmony, " Machover teased, " but didnít change the chords ó like a Philip Glass piece. " This project, he said, wanted to find ways to introduce children to music that was more fun than the traditional way, and that would allow them " to play with wonderful musicians, " like the members of Gil Roseís Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

At 50, Machover was the oldest composer on the program. French composer Jean-Pascal Beintus is 37; the Autumn and Winter movements of his Nature Suite gave four children playing music shapers the chance to imitate animals and other natural phenomena. The youngest composers were fifth-graders Leonardo Tanenbaum-Diaz, Teyanna Powell-Hughes, and Joshua McClellan (Passionate Schizophrenic). A piece by an 11-year-old Dublin boy was called Attack of the Headless Chickens.

The most original piece was by 12-year-old Natasha Sinha (a four-time winner of ASCAPís Young Composers Award), Gestures, which she worked on with Hugo Solís García, a 27-year-old MIT grad student from Mexico. Six children played shapers, and seven instrumentalists were stationed around the auditorium (pairs of trumpets, trombones, and violas in the house and " one lonely double bass " on the stage). The isolation of these solo instruments in contrast to the densely textured sounds from the shapers was poignant. Most of the other pieces were more upbeat. My biggest reservation about the project is that so little of the music, and not only by the children, had what makes music vital and necessary ó the expression of emotions for which words are inadequate. Too much sounded like game playing, moving sounds around, the musical equivalent of refrigerator-magnet poetry ó more fun to do, maybe, than to contemplate.

That aside, the concert was most enjoyable. Machoverís Sparkler was a dazzling overture, with its electronic expansions, Beethovenís " An die Freude, " and " buried " Beatles tunes ó so buried I couldnít find any ( " I Want To Hold Your Hand " might have worked in a concert featuring hand-held instruments). The Toy Symphony itself ó part concerto, part choral fantasy ó was, as it should have been, the most substantial work, bringing a phenomenal multiplicity of forces into play. Cora Venus Lunny, a 20-year-old virtuoso from Dublin, was the galvanizing " hyperviolin " soloist (Joshua Bell played the BBC broadcast last June), sending her sounds and hand motions to the computer programmers, who transformed them into a spectacular aural spectrum no single acoustic instrument could convey. With the remarkable PALS Childrenís Chorus singing in an invented language, more shapers and beatbugs, and the full BMOP orchestra, the haunting quietude of the opening Lullaby built to a tremendous climax in the hymnlike second-movement Chorale. If anything, Toy Symphony is almost too solemn; I missed the jokes of the old Toy Symphony attributed to Michael Haydn ó which was, of course, limited to acoustic instruments.

BENJAMIN ZANDERíS BOSTON PHILHARMONIC presented a program of mostly French music that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. In his pre-concert talk, Zander compared the qualities of Mahler (the instruments like characters in a novel, each telling its own story) with the qualities of Debussy or Ravel, music about precision ó beauty of sound, color, texture ó and ambiguity. That the orchestra could play Debussyís Nuages and Fêtes (two of his three Nocturnes ó the third, Sirènes, with chorus, is done less often), Ravelís second Daphnis et Chloé Suite, Chaussonís Poème, and Saint-Saënsís A-minor Cello Concerto so gorgeously, so flawlessly, is a measure of the BPOís astounding new technical virtuosity. There was also the East Coast premiere of John Harbisonís challenging and mesmerizing Oboe Concerto.

On top of this, all the soloists were members of the orchestra. Principal cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer brought the audience to its feet with the twinkling delight of his bravura. In the Chausson, ailing concertmaster Joanna Kurkowicz was replaced at the last minute by co-concertmaster Wei-Pin Kuo, who by the third performance was playing from memory, with velvety legato and passionate dignity. The incomparable oboist Peggy Pearson had a workout with the Harbison. The melodic lines are eloquent but jumpy: some are punctuated mid phrase by fluttering trills. But fast or slow, Pearson maintained the flowing line, and with a rainbow of rich colors ó especially blues, since Harbisonís music pulls into its powerful vortex both the contrapuntal complexities of Bach and the bent-note sublimities of Billie Holiday.

Within the orchestra, Kathleen Boyd was impressive in Ravelís celebrated flute solo depicting the myth of Syrinx. Ronald Kaye had the murmuring English-horn solo in Nuages. Jeffrey Work gave the " distant " trumpet in Fêtes a marvelous sense of nocturnal mystery.

But despite all the refinement ó the glistening, impeccable strings, the pianissimo tremolos in the basses in Nuages ó mystery was in relatively short supply. Zander played down the storytelling, scene-painting sides of Debussy, Ravel, and even Chausson (who based Poème, according to program annotator Steven Ledbetter, on a Turgenev story). His careful beat in Nuages sacrificed Impressionistic evocativeness on the altar of precision ó something heíd never do with his favorite composer, Mahler.

Next season, in celebration of its 25th anniversary, the BPO is scheduling only Mahler, an exciting prospect from Bostonís most authoritative Mahler conductor. A program of French music, however good for the orchestra, may not have been as good an idea. Too much of it seemed the same. Maybe these performances werenít quite French enough, without enough distinctions made among different kinds of Frenchness. After Debussy, Chausson, and Harbison, I was ready to hear not Saint-Saëns and Ravel but more Harbison.

FOR THE FINALE of the BSOís first season without a full-time music director, we got a rather mixed bag. Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer, in his BSO debut, led off with an engaging and characterful performance of Bartókís Dance Suite ó six linked dances inspired by Hungarian, Romanian, and Arabic folk music. Serge Koussevitzky first played it with the BSO in 1926, three years after Bartók wrote it. The only other BSO subscription performance was under another Hungarian conductor, Ferenc Fricsay, 50 years ago. Although I missed the rhythmic playfulness of Pierre Boulezís recording with the New York Philharmonic, it got the evening off to a lively start.

The audience loved the next piece, Mozartís great D-minor Piano Concerto, with a celebrity pianist, Emanuel Ax. For a minute, it sounded as if it might come alive. This is one of Mozartís most dramatic pieces, in the same key he used for Don Giovanni. Fischer got some tension out of the orchestra, but once Ax started to play, little drama ensued ó just a lot of pretty notes. I doubt there was anything Fischer could have done to make this less than a routine run-through by a popular performer, but he didnít seem to be trying too hard.

The last piece, Dvôrákís Symphony No. 7 (also in D minor, continuing in the key of the concerto), was an improvement over the Mozart, but not as incisive as the Bartók. Dvôrák owed a lot to Brahms, both personally and in his music, and this symphony is Dvôrák at his most Brahmsian. In the first movement, he even uses a tune from Brahmsís Second Piano Concerto, which dates from three years before Dvôrák started the symphony. (Brahms himself liked the tune so much, he used it again in one of his most moving songs, " Immer leise wird mein Schlummer. " )

The Seventh is one of Dvôrákís most ambitious and large-scaled works. Fischer is an efficient and graceful conductor. He doesnít use many gestures, but when he makes wavy motions with his hands, you feel he knows just what he wants from the orchestra. He got the proportions right. Musical phrases made sense. And the playing, throughout the evening, was mostly first-class, though if the oboe ó as Ben Zander suggested in speaking warmly about Peggy Pearson ó is the true voice of an orchestra, then the loud and forced playing of Fischerís oboist, assistant principal Keisuke Wakao, was sending the wrong message.

In his program note, Michael Steinberg referred to the slow movement as one of Dvôrákís " most searching " ó but that wasnít what I was hearing. In the Scherzo, the jumpy cross-rhythms sounded like a Wagnerian operetta, something heavy trying to sound light. Fischer was very good at clarifying the multiple rhythms. At home, I played my favorite recording, Václav Talich conducting the Czech Philharmonic in 1938. The phrasing is so subtly and pointedly inflected, you can hear a spoken language behind the music. The Adagio is both delicate and truly " searching, " the Scherzo buoyant and dancing. Even the Brahms quotation sounds like Dvôrák. Fischerís performance had many virtues. He didnít ruin the symphony. But at the end of a season, when one is yearning for some revelation, itís disappointing when it doesnít come.

Issue Date: May 2 - 8, 2003
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