Most people in Boston’s classical music community know Martin Pearlman as the founder, music director, and driving force behind Boston Baroque, the period-instrument orchestra that will soon celebrate its 40th anniversary. So close is the identification of Pearlman with early music that many are unaware that his academic degrees are in composition — rather than, say, in conducting or musicology — and that he continues to compose.
In fact, a major work in progress by Pearlman was the motivation for a new chamber series that Boston Baroque is unveiling this season. Called “New Directions,” the four-concert series unexpectedly brings together Baroque and contemporary music, played on both early and modern instruments.
Pearlman, in a recent phone interview, said the series is being funded by a group of anonymous donors under the collective title of “Friends of Daniel Steiner.” Steiner, who died in 2006 at 72, was the president of Boston Baroque’s board, and later the president of New England Conservatory, and Pearlman is especially pleased that the series is being sponsored in his honor. “He was somebody I considered a friend, a very sage man. Someone I’d turn to for advice.”
Pearlman studied composition as an undergraduate at Cornell University with the Czech composer Karel Husa and as a graduate student at Yale University with Yehudi Wyner. His influences, he said, come more from the modernist tradition exemplified by Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter than from American neo-Romanticism. “I’ve always felt that it’s informed a lot of what I’ve done as a Baroque performer,” he said of what he jokingly called his “double life” as a composer. “You look at music a little differently.”
For the past two years, Pearlman has been working on a setting of sections from James Joyce’s comic-experimental masterpiece, “Finnegans Wake.” It is, to say the least, a daunting task: Joyce’s text is so complex and overstuffed with contorted puns and obscure linguistic associations that it seems to be written in a private language. Many readers have felt that the joke, whatever it is, is on them.
But Pearlman has been fascinated by “Finnegans Wake” since his college days. And while the book has been taken up by some composers — including songs by Samuel Barber and John Cage’s “Roaratorio” — Pearlman said that “what interested me was very different from what I was seeing or hearing from other compositions. None of the pieces really dealt with the text, which I was really interested in.”
He realized, though, that listeners would stand almost no chance of absorbing Joyce’s wordplay if it were being sung. So he decided to score “Finnegans Wake — An Operoar” for seven instrumentalists and an actor who will speak the text. Pearlman has worked extensively with actor Adam Harvey, who specializes in performing large sections of “Finnegans Wake.” The Sept. 23 concert will feature the first of a projected three parts of the piece, a half-hour of music that covers the full text of the novel’s first seven pages. The piece will be played twice, with an audience discussion in between.
A Nov. 3 program features selections from Handel, Monteverdi, Heinrich Bach, Berio, and Ligeti. The underlying theme, Pearlman said, was music that emphasized pure instrumental sound over harmony, rhythm, and melody. Of Ligeti’s “Continuum” for harpsichord, he said, “there’s no melody or even rhythm. Just sonority that changes slowly. And there are Baroque pieces that just deal with the sonority of the instruments. And I’ve always felt a closeness among those pieces. And when you show that, those things can be kind of interesting to people.”
The Feb. 3 program links the Baroque era and the 20th century by juxtaposing a trio sonata by Corelli with Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord, written for a similar ensemble. The final concert (March 22) is the second Boston Baroque program to be devoted to the “Mystery Sonatas” of Heinrich Biber, with Christina Day Martinson as violin soloist. (The first was in February.) While that program contains no contemporary music per se, the unusual demands Biber made on the violin, including a variety of tunings, make the sonatas their own brand of contemporary music. “It’s really avant-garde music,” said Pearlman. “Frankly, I don’t think anyone ever has gone as far as he has in terms of those kind of experiments on the instrument. And that’s why it fits.”
There is no guaranteeing how long a series like this will last — it is subject to audience demand and the largesse of its supporters. But Pearlman is hoping it will have a chance to evolve. “I see it not just mixing Baroque and contemporary music, but also just a place we can experiment with things we might want to take into the main series,” he said. “It’s a place where one can be freer and try things out.”
Wagner’s ‘Ring’ on small(er) screen
If you missed the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle on stage or in HD transmissions in theaters, the entire tetralogy will be broadcast on PBS next week on consecutive nights. Wagner Week, as it might be called, begins on Monday with “Wagner’s Dream,” a two-hour documentary on the challenges of bringing the “Ring” to the stage. The four operas will air Tuesday through Friday. All broadcasts will begin at 9 p.m. on WGBH Channel 2.
Robert Lepage’s technologically advanced yet dramatically static production has come in for its share of criticism. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross memorably called it “pound for pound . . . the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.” And Jeremy Eichler wrote in the Globe earlier this year that “while aiming at technological brilliance, [Lepage] leaves behind what is — in its efforts to capture the deeper power of Wagner’s musical dramas — an amazingly timid and under-realized theatrical experience.” Nevertheless, there remain many reasons to see the production, not the least of which is baritone Eric Owens’s demonic yet nuanced take on the role of the dwarf Alberich.