Twenty-five years ago, word traveled quickly about a new orchestra in Boston entirely devoted to works created by living composers, and to music of the last 100 years. It would have an omnivorous conductor keen to actively collaborate. A core of crack freelance players who could find the music inside of any complex contemporary score. A governing aesthetic that was radically ecumenical, embracing conservative and progressive compositional languages with equal fervor. And a hunger to attract audiences far beyond the small niche of specialists and connoisseurs that typically support new music.
To many observers back then, conductor Gil Rose’s original vision for his Boston Modern Orchestra Project sounded like a nobly intentioned pipe dream. “We all thought [Gil] was insane,” composer Evan Ziporyn recalled in a 2007 Globe interview. “But — you know what? — he did it.”
These days the scores arrive by PDF instead of manila envelopes, and the group’s administrative footprint has expanded well beyond Rose’s kitchen table, but the core aspects of BMOP’s identity and mission have not shifted one microtone. What has grown dramatically is the organization’s size and its national profile, the latter boosted to a large extent by the ensemble’s Grammy-winning record label BMOP/sound.
Taken as a whole, BMOP is now, according to Rose, the largest ensemble of its kind in the country. And without doubt it has become an absolutely essential force in the field, a purveyor of not just new things to hear — but new ways of hearing, of understanding, and of celebrating the vibrant yet oftentimes near-invisible tradition of American symphonic music of the last century.
The group’s anniversary season officially kicks off on Feb. 18, with its first live performance in two years: a free concert in Symphony Hall showcasing the hall’s historic organ (with the estimable organist Paul Jacobs). More anniversary programs will follow, culminating in a festive concert next spring in Carnegie Hall and, Rose hopes, the release of the label’s 100th CD.
Speaking about the anniversary recently by phone from his Malden home, Rose was keen to focus on the music at the center of the mission. “It’s really the repertoire that makes us who we are, not me, not my orchestra players, not the playing. This whole time it’s been an exercise in trying to expand what’s available to be heard. You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.”
And where we’ve been, Rose understands, is being rapidly forgotten. When it comes to 20th-century music, mainstream symphony orchestras rarely journey beyond a limited group of certified (often European) masterworks, which means concertgoers receive scant context for understanding music being written today. When those same big orchestras then present the occasional world premiere, the work can easily come across as deracinated or traditionless, music from an island off the coast of nowhere. And what’s more, while delivering first performances garners prestige — after that, few orchestras feel much obligation to help further launch a work into the world, let alone program a work that another ensemble has premiered. So as any composer will tell you, getting that second performance of a new piece can often feel next to impossible.
Enter BMOP as a kind of radical corrective. A typical Rose program will situate the newer pieces within the musical worlds out of which they were born. The upcoming Symphony Hall concert, for instance, will juxtapose Stephen Paulus’s 1992 “Grand Concerto” for Organ and Orchestra with organ works by Olivier Messiaen and the little-known Belgian composer Joseph Jongen. And lest newer works disappear right after they are introduced, Rose and the orchestra immediately record them after they’re performed. In this way BMOP has over time created dozens upon dozens of full discs devoted to the works of a single composer.
This approach can, simply put, both transform a composer’s career and, in some not insignificant ways, transform the broader path forward for American orchestral music. Take Andrew Norman, BMOP’s composer-in-residence from 2011 to 2013. Speaking recently by phone, Norman explained that, prior to his BMOP residency, he had been questioning his entire relationship to the symphony orchestra. Was it even worth trying to create new work for today’s orchestras, or was the orchestra itself essentially a 19th-century instrument that lives on chiefly to perform a limited range of Romantic-era works? And was the modern system of commissions and premieres so convoluted that a young composer would be better off cultivating other musical gardens by writing for their own bespoke chamber ensembles?
After three years in residence with BMOP, Norman had resolved his doubts. “BMOP gave me the space to experiment,” he said, “the space to be myself, to collaborate with musicians, to take the risks I wanted to take.” That experimentation culminated in his dazzling breakout work “Play” — an orchestral work commissioned by BMOP.
BMOP premiered and recorded “Play,” later releasing it on its house label. The score went on to win the field’s most prestigious award, the Grawemeyer, and the new recording was hailed by many critics and featured on many year-end lists. “At a time when orchestras are gasping for ways to be modern,” wrote New York Magazine about Norman’s “Play” and a second work by Thomas Adès, “when so many composers write for pared-down custom ensembles ... these dense, theatrical, and exhilarating pieces offer a way forward ... for the symphonic tradition.”
It’s that larger tradition that Rose sees himself as tending, its future but also its past. He appreciates the warhorses as much as the next listener, but he nonetheless sees the field’s obsessive repetition of a small body of work as bordering on absurd.
“If I go down fighting, that’s what I’ll be saying: It doesn’t have to be this way,” Rose said. “Our culture is 20 times richer than we think it is. It’s like we all decided we were just going to eat steak. Nothing else. But it doesn’t have to be the same pieces over and over again.”
In a way, after BMOP has spent the last 2½ decades emphasizing the importance of diversifying the repertoire through creating new work and excavating forgotten treasures in American music’s own backyard, the group has now positioned itself far ahead of the broader cultural curve. Or as New York-based composer Lisa Bielawa put it in a recent interview: “Institutions everywhere are now struggling to broadcast their own wokeness, but BMOP has been doing this work all along.”
As a perfect example, Bielawa points to “As Told By: History, Race and Justice on the Opera Stage,” a five-year initiative undertaken by BMOP and Odyssey Opera, the kindred-spirited opera company Rose also directs. The new series will feature a signature Rose combination of older works (“Troubled Island,” William Grant Still’s grand opera of 1949, with a libretto by Langston Hughes, in its New England premiere); works that should be in recent memory but aren’t (Anthony Davis’s “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” and Ulysses Kay’s “Frederick Douglass,” both in their New England premieres); unheard works (Nkeiru Okoye’s “Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom”); and a new commission (Jonathan Bailey Holland’s “The Bridge” about Martin Luther King Jr.’s years in Boston).
In addition to its inherent artistic value, an ambitious project like this positions Rose, BMOP, and its community partners as leaders in the classical world’s current national reckoning on race. But while the pandemic postponed its official announcement, the planning for this project began some three years ago, well before the murder of George Floyd forced issues of racial justice into sharp relief.
Looking ahead, Rose imagines post-pandemic concert life going in one of two directions. Financial pressures could cause many groups to retrench, with programming becoming all the more conservative; or, in his words, “it could all break free and everything would be up for grabs.”
If it’s the latter outcome, or some combination of the two, BMOP and Rose will have once again helped pave the way. At 25, the group has already earned the profound gratitude of legions of composers. As it kicks off its anniversary season, it deserves the rest of ours, too.