The 2016 Honorees

By Steve Smith

This celebrated Boston ensemble, devoted to music of the 20th and 21st centuries, celebrates its 20th anniversary this season. Equally laudatory is its burgeoning CD catalogue, a rich and diverse library now essential to any student and admirer of American music.

“This idea that orchestras do some percentage of their output in new music, or recently new music, that’s the biggest historical anomaly,” says Gil Rose, founder in 1996 of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, one of its home town’s most vital musical organizations. “You can thank Mendelssohn for that: He went back and resurrected that pesky Matthew Passion. But before that, there was just no idea that you would perform old music.”

Listening to that bold proclamation, you sense a tongue pressed lightly into a cheek, even if you’re sympathetic to the viewpoint. But for Rose, who still serves as the Project’s artistic director during its 20th-anniversary celebration this season, overturning preconceived notions is serious business.

With BMOP (pronounced “BEE-mop” by friends and admirers), Rose has advocated for new and recently new music resoundingly. The orchestra to date has presented more than 100 premieres, as well as 50 illuminating recordings, the majority issued on its house CD label, BMOP/sound, launched in 2008. The stylistic range is equally impressive: BMOP has devoted its spirit and authority to performances of works by Gunther Schuller, Lukas Foss, Lee Hyla, and Milton Babbitt, while also providing  welcome exposure for disparate contemporaries like Lisa Bielawa, Ken Ueno, and Andrew Norman. 

The results speak for themselves: 20 years of achievement and growth, prestigious performances, and a swelling tally of awards and accolades, including 11 ASCAP awards for adventurous orchestral programming. Rose—who served as artistic director of the now-defunct Opera Boston from 2003 to 2011, and currently holds that position with the Boston-based Odyssey Opera and New Hampshire festival Monadnock Music—was awarded an ASCAP Concert Music award, and in 2007 received Columbia University’s Ditson Conductor’s Award for his commitment to the performance of American music.

What Rose envisioned and instituted, he says, is a freelance model that balances consistency and churn. “I almost always have my principal players, who constitute a sort of core group,” he says. “But as freelancers come and go from the city, young players can come in and get involved, and it keeps fresh that way. I think a lot of the spark that’s in the playing  comes from the group having a fluid model—sometimes it’s 90 players, and sometimes it’s 15. Many of the people who play in the group have played as soloists in the group. Some have had pieces commissioned for them. So there’s that sort of investiture.” 

That Rose should have conceived a model for a flexible freelance ensemble devoted to music of the 20th and 21st centuries, mostly but not exclusively American, seems less audacious than believing such a model could be sustained financially. “I didn’t know,” Rose insists when that question is raised. Not knowing that his dream seemed improbable, he suggests, is precisely what made it attainable. “We had breaks along the way,” he says. “When things could have gone bad, things happened that went right. People came and went, foundations came and went. But I never changed what we did. It’s pretty much the same; it’s just a little bit larger.”

That achievement has not come without its share of challenges, he admits. After 20 years, BMOP can boast of attracting some of the youngest, hippest audiences in town—a point made in an illuminating 2007 profile of Rose written by Boston Globe classical-music critic Jeremy Eichler. But in a city richly stocked with cultural opportunities, houses for BMOP’s smartly programmed, vividly played concerts at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall are not always full. And Rose reports that even after 20 years, he meets self-professed new-music lovers in Boston who say they’ve never heard of BMOP.

“I hardly spend any money on marketing,” Rose offers. “We put it all up on the stage.” And on CD. Lessons Rose learned as a record-store clerk and as a passionate collector are reflected in the burgeoning BMOP/sound catalog. From the start, the label’s discs have shared a distinctive look, as well as an attention to quality that extends past performance and recording to erudite notes and appealing designs. The result is the natural heir to the storied Louisville Orchestra canon, and a library now essential to any student and admirer of American music. 

“There’s a whole lot of stuff we record that we don’t even play in concert,” Rose says. “Every June, I do what’s become known among the freelancers as ‘Recordathon.’ The first year was four days, three sessions a day.” At the end of BMOP’s inaugural taping marathon, someone snapped a photograph of empty seats and microphone stands, surrounded by sheet music that blanketed the Jordan Hall stage. “Somebody shared it on Facebook and said it’s like empty bottles of beer after an all-night party,” Rose relates, laughing. This year, he and his players completed a disc devoted to Wayne Peterson’s music, recording his Pulitzer Prize-winning piece The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark, and another disc of works by Walter Piston. In addition, the ensemble taped works by Stephen Hartke and Lei Liang, both destined for discs in progress.

That small selection points toward the breadth and diversity of music that BMOP has helped to preserve and disseminate—activities at the heart of the organization’s mission. Rose likewise points to the ensemble’s four most recent releases: Andrew Norman’s Play, a 50-minute piece that some critics have proclaimed the first major orchestral work of the 21st century; the complete symphonic works of Irving Fine; a disc of large orchestral works by Donald Crockett; and, most recently, a richly rewarding two-CD set of Lukas Foss’s complete symphonies. 

“Even in that microcosm of four releases,” Rose says, “is a newly commissioned major orchestral work by a composer under 30; the complete works of a forgotten, masterful composer; a late-side-of-mid-career composer’s big orchestral pieces; and, from an iconic American composer that everybody knows, four pieces that nobody knows—in fact, four pieces that have never been recorded commercially.”

Rose takes immense pride in BMOP’s sterling history of acclaimed performances, noteworthy premieres, and commended recordings—“all from an organization with a budget that’s hovered a little bit above, or a little bit below, a million dollars,” he notes. “The accomplishment bang for the buck—as both the artistic leader and the organizational leader of the company, I couldn’t be happier. I don’t know any organization that’s done as much per dollar.”

His pride is well earned and entirely warranted. “I feel like in so many ways, BMOP is fulfilling its mission so well as I quantify what’s important, which is producing and advocating for music.” He pauses, and then adds for emphasis: “Orchestral music.” •

Steve Smith is an assistant arts editor at the Boston Globe, overseeing music and visual arts coverage. He previously served as the music editor for Time Out New York and as a freelance contributor to the New York Times, and takes his daughter to concerts and museums as frequently as possible.


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