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With its founder stepping back, Boston Musica Viva ends 51-year run

No longer conducting after setbacks with his health, Richard Pittman and his new music ensemble deserve the city’s gratitude

The core ensemble of Boston Musica Viva in 1970, featuring (from left to right) John Heiss, Elsa Charlston, Richard Pittman, Jay Humeston, Nancy Cirillo, Dean Anderson (back), William Wrzesien (front), Luise Vosgerchian.Courtesy of Boston Musica Viva/Boston Musica Viva

On Feb. 7, 1970 — the same year that Paul McCartney left the Beatles, and four students were shot at Kent State — a brief article appeared on page 8 of this newspaper under the headline “Modern music scheduled.” As Globe readers learned, three intriguing programs would be performed by an ensemble surely almost no one had ever heard of at the time: Boston Musica Viva.

The group had just been founded by a soft-spoken, Baltimore-born conductor named Richard Pittman, who had arrived in town two years earlier to teach at New England Conservatory. The concerts went well. More followed. So did the audience.

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There were many reasons why. Pittman had discovered a gap in the offerings of this culturally proud city; prior to the arrival of Boston Musica Viva (or BMV) there were no professional ensembles in Boston devoted to contemporary music. And Pittman also had an unwavering vision: to help the public discover the most vibrant, important music being written by living composers of the day.

What’s more, he had an uncanny ear for finding many of the best young composers, and supporting them with commissions at the start of their career. Twelve of those commissioned would go on to win Pulitzer Prizes. The group’s profile in the press also shifted quickly, from obscure upstart ensemble to household name. “Musica Viva comes to the rescue,” read one Globe headline in 1971.

But in March 2020, Pittman, who for decades has also directed the New England Philharmonic and the Concord Symphony, suffered a stroke at the age of 84. Since then, he has been forced to step back from the public eye, and from all of his conducting duties.

And earlier this month, Boston Musica Viva made the momentous decision to cease operations.

Boston is losing an essential purveyor of invigorating new music — after 51 years, 109 commissions, 20 recordings, and 243 world premieres. Until now, BMV has stood as the country’s oldest professional ensemble dedicated to contemporary music.

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“All these years, the personnel have changed, the music has changed, the venues have changed, but Dick Pittman remained the same,” said Robert Pape, who has been the group’s executive director since 2013. “That’s what the board and I came to realize — it just wouldn’t be Boston Musica Viva without Dick.”

The closure marks the end of a historic run for a new music group of international caliber, one that kept a slim administrative footprint yet always punched above its weight. From the outset, Pittman gathered the best available performers around him, and many stayed for years to form a protean core ensemble, growing and contracting according to the needs of the work at hand. More Boston new music groups quickly followed BMV’s example — Collage New Music opened its doors in 1972 and Dinosaur Annex in 1975 — but Pittman, in his quietly formidable way, simply stayed the course, showing a kind of even-keeled, sustained dedication that was itself totally radical. It is difficult to imagine the city’s new music scene today without him.

Richard Pittman leading the musicians of Boston Musica Viva in a 1987 performance of "Frankenstein!!" by Austrian composer HK Gruber (seated at far right).Courtesy of Boston Musica Viva

Having grown up in a home where both his parents sang in church choirs, Pittman liked to speak of music itself as his religion. In the early days of BMV, his missionizing involved not just conducting but also printing fliers, calling donors, seeking out venues, contracting players. Later, as the group became more established, he was able to focus on the repertoire — which was never easy to predict.

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Over the years at both BMV and the New England Philharmonic, Pittman’s own programs have been endlessly imaginative. He had started out as a trombone player, studied at the Peabody Institute, and later played in the US Army Band and in the National Symphony. After realizing he had a facility for conducting, he developed his talent, as he later explained, out of an interest in programming, a desire to help audiences understand how different works of music related to each other.

And while many symphony orchestras across the country have tended to dole out contemporary music almost apologetically (when it’s on the menu at all), much of BMV’s early strength of purpose flowed from its cheerful opposition to this view — that is, with an approach to the new that was straightforward, bold, and celebratory. Recalling the early years in a 2019 interview with the Globe, the composer, conductor, and flautist John Heiss, who was a founding ensemble member, put it simply: “There was a lot of joy.”

More than anything else, Pittman’s programs over the years reflected an avid curiosity and wide-ranging tastes. He was not afraid to champion the less popular streams of contemporary music, even when tacking toward the more “accessible” would have made fund-raising and audience development easier. He also ceaselessly sought out younger composers whose voices he felt were ready to sound on his stage, even if they didn’t know it yet.

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“I’m one of those composers, and there are many of us, whose musical development and opportunities were intimately linked to Dick and Boston Musica Viva,” said the MIT-based composer Peter Child in a recent phone interview, adding that he considers the first of the subsequent 10 commissions he received from BMV as “the biggest boost, the rocket launch of my career.” Other composers BMV has championed over the years include Bernard Hoffer, Shirish Korde, Michael Gandolfi, Andy Vores, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, David Rakowski — and dozens more.

Conductor Richard Pittman with composer Michael Gandolfi at a rehearsal in the Tsai Performance Center in 2009.Sheppard Ferguson

Across the decades, the group also toured widely, from Rockport to Rotterdam, Framingham to Frankfurt. Pittman’s sense of mission was often validated abroad. When performing in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1980, the group was told they were bringing the first new American music to the city since the end of the Second World War.

For all of BMV’s success over the years — and that of the two volunteer ensembles Pittman also led — he has typically shied away from the spotlight, an attitude not exactly common among conductors. This unassuming style drew both players and audiences to him.

“It was never about Dick’s persona,” said Gabriela Diaz, a violinist in BMV’s core ensemble since 2007, “but about BMV being the vessel the music came through. I can’t even say how much we all appreciated that.”

Pape added: “Dick always envisioned the conductor as a member of the ensemble, just like the violin, the piano, and the percussion.”

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Pittman’s humility as an ensemble leader also extended to his musical approach. As was clear from the consistent level of quality the performances attained, he had fiercely high standards for how a piece should be prepared, but at the same time he maintained a very light interpretive touch. Or as the composer Bruce Adolphe put it in a tribute booklet compiled for BMV’s 50th anniversary season, “Richard does not seek to tame a new piece but to set it free, to let it breathe with its natural rhythm and sing with its true voice.”

It’s hard to get one’s mind around BMV’s closure. The group has been such a fixture, and its exit from the scene constitutes a major loss for Boston’s new music community. At the same time, given the circumstances, there is a certain grace in BMV’s decision to pass the baton — precisely because, while it started as a lone force, it later found plenty of company.

The city’s contemporary music scene is flourishing today, a fact that can in part be attributed to BMV’s success as trailblazers, and to Richard Pittman’s unflashy but steadfast leadership, year after year, premiere after premiere. He and his players deserve the city’s gratitude.

In the coming seasons, Pittman’s two community ensembles will forge ahead under new leadership. As for BMV, while it will no longer be performing, its history will not disappear. The legacy of this pioneering ensemble lives on, resoundingly, in the hundreds of works it helped bring into the world.


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.