Friday evening, Boston Modern Orchestra Project presented its most normal concert this season — as normal as BMOP gets, anyway. Compared with February’s organ extravaganza at Symphony Hall and this June’s highly anticipated production of Anthony Davis’s opera “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” at Dorchester’s Strand Theater, Friday’s portrait concert of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich hewed closest to BMOP’s typical pre-pandemic events: The orchestra was back in its customary venue of Jordan Hall, with artistic director Gil Rose on the podium and under-appreciated modern music in the spotlight.
Zwilich, who celebrates her 83rd birthday later this month, is notable for several distinctions. She became the first woman to earn a doctor of musical arts degree in composition at Juilliard in 1975, the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1983, and perhaps the first woman composer to be name-checked in a “Peanuts” comic strip, after cartoonist Charles M. Schulz heard about her through the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in 1990 and drew Peppermint Patty standing on her seat to cheer her on at a concert.
Zwilich has been steadily turning out works for ensembles small and large ever since, but the current generation of symphony-goers (myself included) is more likely to know her for her place in history than for her actual music. Her orchestral pieces show up semi-frequently on programs by university and regional orchestras, but the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for one, hasn’t performed anything of hers in this century. Enter Rose, who worked within Jordan Hall’s current COVID-19 safety guidelines (concerts must have no intermission and run no longer than 90 minutes) to curate an inviting lineup of four pieces from the past few decades.
This concert was the 21st such event of BMOP’s long-running ConNECtion series in partnership with New England Conservatory, and eagerly listening students filled several of Jordan Hall’s seats. The composer was also present, seated near the front of the hall, and Rose and the evening’s two soloists — flutist Sarah Brady and violinist Gabriela Diaz — made sure to pay her due honors with every round of applause.
Though the pieces may have been short in duration, they were short on neither style nor substance. Zwilich’s orchestral amuse-bouche “Upbeat!” set an exuberant tone with its homage to Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3; BMOP’s low brass echoed the strings’ opening melodic gesture and matched them in nimble agility, creating a breathless feeling that didn’t let up until the final bar. Several wind players from the orchestra then claimed seats to watch the next two pieces. First came Brady with the spiralic “Concerto Elegia,” which the composer wrote in memory of her husband. The strings created a foggy background in long tones for the flute to wander through; they gradually transformed into a conversational partner for the soloist, with pinging pizzicatos goading the flute into virtuosic flights. Still, Brady imbued these with a sense of poignant weight, the pain of loss never totally absent.
As a violinist herself, Zwilich has a particular affinity for the instrument. Her concerto for solo violin and string orchestra, “Commedia Dell’Arte,” is a showpiece par excellence. Diaz, who is usually found sitting in the concertmaster’s chair at BMOP concerts, took the stage in a suitably jesteresque jumpsuit (one trouser leg black, the other red, with glittering green sandals) and proved herself the perfect player to introduce the audience to this seldom-played concerto. The giddy, mischievous antics of first movement “Arlecchino” and the blustery double stops of the third movement “Capitano” were divided by the sly grace of “Colombina,” with all characters meeting in the finale. Commedia troupes may be rare these days, but if ever a concerto demanded an accompanying ballet, this might be it.
A few bows and an impressive quick change to concert black later, Diaz was back in her usual seat and the wind players returned to the stage for Zwilich’s Symphony No. 5, subtitled “Concerto for Orchestra” and a fitting conclusion to the concerto sampler. Though the symphony wandered through many moods and modes, with moments that echoed the sparkling playfulness of the “Commedia” concerto and the profundity of the “Elegia,” it never sounded lost. Rose led the charge with clear direction, and the orchestra whipped around the piece’s roller-coaster twist and turns with confidence.
Zwilich has said that hearing a wonderful performance of one of her pieces represents the “pinnacle of success” for her, and BMOP served up four such performances. It may still be true that many listeners know more about Zwilich’s accomplishments than her music, but it’s high time for that to change. Fortunately, BMOP recorded the concert for release on its in-house label BMOP/sound; unfortunately, we’ll all have to wait till 2023 to hear it. Until then, go to YouTube, pick one, and hit play.
BOSTON MODERN ORCHESTRA PROJECT
At Jordan Hall, April 8. www.bmop.org