Andrew Norman: Play
Boston Modern Orchestra
Project/Gil Rose (BMOP/sound)
“Play,” which the Boston Modern Orchestra Project commissioned from the fast-rising composer Andrew Norman in 2013, is being talked about as the most important long orchestral work of the 21st century. That kind of hype can often be misleading, but in this case it’s quite likely accurate. The 45-minute, three-movement work, which encompasses various meanings of play — some lighthearted, some sinister — begins in an almost spastic fit of energy; musical ideas ricochet off one another furiously, almost too quickly. But embedded in the chaos are two scales: one ascending, the other descending. Their interaction and gradual transformation create the piece’s overarching structure as the music progresses through three “levels,” though it never loses its reckless feel.
Norman’s use of the orchestra has a family relation to that of Thomas Adès while remaining wildly original, with new sounds and instrumental combinations emerging at virtually every moment. For all its technical virtuosity, though, “Play” also imparts a tremendous emotional punch, the aural narrative of an individual — a character, an idea — in search of fulfillment. Whether it’s achieved at the end remains an open question. That idea is also embodied in Norman’s earlier chamber orchestra work, “Try,” included as a kind of bonus track. But it’s “Play,” in a brashly confident performance by BMOP and Gil Rose, that most clearly points up Norman’s staggering imagination and talent.