Most orchestras emphasize music by composers we're all familiar with: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and so on. But a small organization received a big honor this month at the Gramophone Classical Music Awards for its extraordinary service to overlooked American composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project – BMOP, as it's known – was presented with a Special Achievement Award for reviving and commissioning a spectrum of significant new and neglected American works over the last 25 years.
How the group pursues its mission was on display recently at Mechanics Hall, an historic venue in Worcester, Mass., where a few dozen highly accomplished, laser-focused musicians were in the middle of what they playfully call a "record-a-thon" to capture nine complex compositions over four days. The agenda included Asunder, a new work by Vijay Iyer, along with pieces by other living composers, including Joan Tower, and now-gone 20th century artists like Lukas Foss.
One of the things that's closest to BMOP artistic director Gil Rose's heart is "the idea of resurrecting, presenting, recording and disseminating pieces that had a moment and then disappeared," he says. Rose founded BMOP as a young conductor who wanted to address what he saw as a serious issue in the concert-music world: orchestras repeatedly programming the same pieces.
"It was masterworks, to be sure," Rose says, "but the same masterworks, over and over again."
One reason, in his view, was money: it's simply safer for orchestras to program crowd-pleasing chestnuts that sell tickets, rather than riskier contemporary pieces. "They had built themselves something called the subscription model, where they played x-number of pieces 24 or 25 weeks a year, and those ticket buyers provided a certain amount of their revenue," Rose explains. "And they of course had to satisfy the ticket buyers."
But that wasn't healthy for orchestras or the classical genre, and still isn't, he notes. So in 1996, Rose gathered a bunch of likeminded adventurers to join him in an experiment that would bring to life both new pieces and neglected music written over the past 100 years.
As an example, he points to Wayne Peterson's Pulitzer Prize-winning work, The Face of the Night, the Heart of the Dark, which premiered in 1991. "That piece had its initial performances by the San Francisco Symphony, then no subsequent performances—even after winning a major award and being recognized internationally," Rose said, "Now people can go out and stream it on Spotify or YouTube, or buy a recording. It's there. It's part of our story now."
Rose and his players have been building a narrative for contemporary American orchestral music via its own record label, BMOP/sound, which launched in 2008. "We resurrected an early piece of John Harbison's – a full-length ballet that had never been recorded – and that was catalog number 1001," Rose says, "And we're getting close to 100 now."
BMOP releases up to a dozen composer-centric recordings a year, spanning eclectic styles, gestures and flavors. "Everything goes for us," Rose proclaims. "Jazz-influenced things, things with non-Western instruments: if it's good, we're up for it."
"There's silly music, there's esoteric music, there's intellectual music," BMOP flute and piccolo player Rachel Braude reels off. She's a founding member of the orchestra, and says its repertoire – including compositions by audacious pioneers like Elliott Carter and John Cage – always stretches her abilities.
"The writing can be just insanely demanding, because composers want to explore new sounds," she explains. "The whole point is new, so you suddenly are confronted with that."
Braude teaches at the New England Conservatory, and performs with a slew of area orchestras, including the Boston Philharmonic, the Portland Symphony and the Boston Ballet Orchestra. But, she says, it's BMOP that really keeps her on her toes. She believes it does the same for the audience.
"This sounds like an Olive Garden slogan or something: it's like an adventure in listening," Braude says, laughing, "And you'll probably have a strong reaction, whether it's confusion or love or dislike."
She also described how being a concert musician is usually an ephemeral experience: "You make a sound, it exists in time, and then it's disappeared." But with BMOP there's a tangible product at the end: a recording she can touch and revisit and remember.
"That holds a lot of pressure," Braude says, "but also a lot of pride."
The numerous recordings BMOP releases are a "crucial phenomenon," according to Boston-area poet and music critic Lloyd Schwartz. "One of the problems about contemporary music is that pieces get one performance and then they're gone," explains Schwartz, who reviews classical music for WHYY's Fresh Air. "But to have recordings of them – and to have them forever – is remarkable. Just have that catalog of the music of your time."
One of his favorite BMOP/sound recordings is Tobias Picker's opera Fantastic Mr. Fox, which also features another inquisitive Rose-helmed ensemble, Odyssey Opera. The recording won a Grammy award in 2020. Schwartz, who attended the performance, calls it "a triumph" that speaks to the orchestra's quest, which he's followed from the beginning.
"You feel that missionary spirit in the performance," Schwartz explains, "that they're doing this not out of some obligation or theory, but they're doing it because they really love to do it and they really think it's important for people to hear this."
He believes that the commissioning of large-scale works by living composers is one of the most important things a musical organization can do—and it's far too rare.
Composer Lei Liang understandably feels the same way. "Without BMOP, many of these pieces would not have been created," he says. In 2018, the orchestra premiered and recorded Liang's ambitious A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams, which went on to win the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for 2021. (Another BMOP-commissioned work – Play by Andrew Norman, often cited as one of the 21st century's most significant orchestral works – claimed the same prize in 2017.)
A 30-minute soundscape, A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams is a deep reflection of Liang's cultural heritage. While none of BMOP's musicians are of Chinese decent, he says their inspired performance and dedication realized his vision. "It's more than just playing your piece," Liang explains. "It's to understand you, and invest in you, and thinking what you do matters."
Having a permanent record of such a profoundly personal piece means the world to him. "Composers sometimes talk in extreme terms... we say, 'oh, you know, I got this recording—I can die now, because I feel so happy that this represents me,' you know?" he admits, laughing. "And what else can you ask for as a composer?" Liang is thrilled about BMOP's Gramophone Award, which he deems well deserved.
The recognition is affirming for Rose, who acknowledges a need for more diverse representation in classical music. BMOP has recorded works by women and people of color throughout its existence, and is launching a new initiative to record five operas by underperformed Black composers during the next five years.
Looking ahead, Rose says he'll always be driven by making rarely heard works accessible to a wide audience. "My goal, and what I would want for the group going forward," he says, "is to always be providing another puzzle piece to this big picture of what it is: what the symphony orchestra can do, and has done, in the last 100 years in America."