The Boston Modern Orchestra Project was multitasking on Sunday, its annual New England Conservatory-affiliated concert doubling as a tribute to composer Oliver Knussen (who conducted last week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts). NEC did its part in the collation, presenting Knussen with an honorary doctorate during the concert. But BMOP and conductor Gil Rose went a little deeper, melding the evening’s dual purposes into a consideration of two of music’s most basic ideas: color and time.
Knussen’s 1983 “Music for a Puppet Court” brought both to the fore. Arrangements of two polyrhythmic canons by the Renaissance composer John Lloyd are coupled to a variation on each in Knussen’s deftly labyrinthine style, one twittering, restless, the other unfurling swaths of ornamented lyricism. Like all of Knussen’s music, the score’s compulsively vibrant orchestration — the sound fairly glistens throughout — shapes a fluid sense of time and its passing.
The piece primed the similar radiance of Alberto Ginastera’s 1965 Harp Concerto. The concerto’s time is more of a dance-like grid — South American echoes abound — but the instrumentation glows and glitters. Soloist Krysten Keches, winner of this year’s BMOP/NEC Concerto Competition, coursed through with focused confidence, her self-possessed concentration making her seem like the eye in a storm of rhythm and hue.
A more literal luminosity was behind Michael Gandolfi’s “The Nature of Light,” a concerto for clarinet and strings given its Boston premiere, with Atlanta Symphony principal Laura Arden as soloist. Light’s wave-particle duality was represented by a wash of oblique harmonies, then a serrated, toccata-like finale.
The evening closed with a superb performance of Knussen’s 1971 Symphony No. 2, premiered when he was 19, already showing full modernist assurance. Poems by Georg Trakl and Sylvia Plath (sung by soprano Sonja Tengblad, her voice floating through the texture like an elegantly exacting ghost) trace a long, expressionistically uneasy night; the music teems and broods, motion often seemingly compressed into vertical layers of counterpoint. Darkly glinting, expertly tangled, the symphony inviting and unsettling all at once.