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Boston Musica Viva showcases impressive works, made in a fortnight

Richard Pittman and Boston Musica Viva opened their season with works from the Rapido! composition contest.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff /file.2009/Boston Globe

With speed at an ever-increasing premium in so many pursuits, it was probably inevitable that such acceleration would come to bear on music composition. Such is the rationale behind the Rapido! composition contest, the northeast regional semifinalists of which were premiered by Boston Musica Viva and conductor Richard Pittman in their Friday night season-opening concert.

The contest's parameters — a mere fortnight between the announcement of a theme (dance, this year) and an instrumentation (violin, cello, oboe, and piano) and the deadline for entries — practically ensures some measure of musical sketchiness, but also reveals a composer's priorities: Each of Friday's three works was impressive and unfinished in individual ways.


Eric Segerstrom's "Indecisive Dances" was both skillful and conventional, fluently tossing dense splashes of color (heavily dependent on Geoffrey Burleson's piano) but defaulting to a decidedly nostalgic French accent. Derek Hurst's "Pas de Trois" was more arresting, its dances fractured into a novel, asymmetrical patois, though the initially compelling ideas tended to lose steam in meandering development. Mark Berger's "Dream Dances" deconstructed a fiddle-style waltz and reel into angular patchwork; here, it was the form that remained loose, a stop-and-go quality sometimes interrupting the music's charm.

Hearing each piece twice (an ensemble snarl in Berger's piece led to a repetition, a courtesy extended, out of fairness, to the other two) confirmed the diverging virtues: Segerstom's was the most polished, Hurst's the most striking, Berger's the most atmospheric. The judges — John Harbison, Martin Brody, and Sam Headrick — opted for evocation: Berger got the nod, and a repeat performance at the competition's finals, in Atlanta in January.

The concert got off to a shaky start with Peter Lieberson's "Raising the Gaze," a score that rarely lets an idea pass without busy contrapuntal escort: The performance, not always rhythmically locked in, kept skirting the line between spiky and chaotic. "Umberhulk," a bit of lumbering fantasy fun from Andy Vores, was (purposefully) more slight, but Vores loves his sounds — Ann Bobo's bass flute, Gabriela Diaz's murky, detuned viola, percussionist Robert Schulz heaving a box of rocks up and down — and gave them gratifying space to breathe.


The closing was Harbison's "Mirabai Songs": assured settings of rapturous Hindu mysticism given an assured performance by mezzo-soprano Krista River, with strong, elegant diction and line. Introducing the piece, Harbison noted that its final form only emerged after a substantial — and time-consuming — false start. The race doesn't always go to the swift.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri