In 2006, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra started its New Brandenburg Project, commissioning six new works to be inspired by Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos.” Each composer was assigned a different concerto and asked to adhere, more or less, to Bach’s instrumentation. On Friday at Jordan Hall, Boston Modern Orchestra Project performed all six.
The composers used various strategies to conjure Bach’s world. Stephen Hartke’s “A Brandenburg Autumn” (based on No. 1) draws on his own experience in Berlin, as he ranges from the waters of the Wannsee to the palaces of Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg. Paul Moravec’s “Brandenburg Gate” (No. 2) suggests not only the title arch but the fall of the Berlin Wall, with a musical motif based on the letters of Bach’s name. Christopher Theofanidis’s “Muse” (No. 3) taps into Bach’s use of threes, adapts the Third Brandenburg’s opening theme, and closes with a variation on Bach’s “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” chorale. Melinda Wagner’s “Little Moonhead: Three Tributaries” (No. 4) favors water motifs, playing on the idea that “Bach” is the German word for “brook.” Peter Maxwell Davies’s “Sea Orpheus” (No. 5) makes use of the plainchant “Tantum ergo sacramentum”; Aaron Jay Kernis’s “Concerto with Echoes” (No. 6) starts with just Bach’s low strings before adding winds, brass, and percussion.
In BMOP’s unfettered, expressive performances, the most affecting movements were the slow ones. The “Pesante” of “Brandenburg Gate” became a starry sarabande led by Terry Everson’s trumpet, Michael Norsworthy’s bass clarinet, and Gabriela Diaz’s violin. The “Slowly” of “Concerto with Echoes” processed from a passacaglia to a threnody. Raymond Chow’s harpsichord haunted the “Palaces” of “A Brandenburg Autumn.”
The evening wasn’t without humor. The finale of “A Brandenburg Autumn,” “Hornpipe,” found five horns standing and playing; the finale of “Little Moonhead,” “Fiddlehead,” was a fiddling extravaganza. The finale of “Muse” was a richly harmonized statement of the chorale. But the best pieces were saved for last: “Sea Orpheus,” with pianist Angela Kim joining Diaz and flutist Sarah Brady in a roiling evocation of the ocean, and “Brandenburg Gate,” whose swinging finale was almost jazzy. These “New Brandenburgs” may never displace the original 1721 set in popularity, but they’re a fine reimagining that deserves the name.
THE NEW BRANDENBURGS: BACH REIMAGINED
Presented by Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose; At: Jordan Hall, Friday
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.