In its century on earth, the theremin has acquired a reputation as a sonic novelty. Even if you’ve never seen one, you’ve probably heard one; for many, the eerie wail of this early electronic instrument conjures images of classic B-movies, wild-eyed scientists and visitors from outer space. Even outside of the pulp fiction realm, it occupies a nerdy niche; for example, WMBR radio host Jon Bernhardt performs covers of new wave and punk songs on it.
But that’s not all there is to the theremin, which has been inspiring adventurous concert-hall composers since it was created. Friday evening at Jordan Hall, Boston Modern Orchestra Project and thereminist Carolina Eyck treated the audience to two pieces for theremin and orchestra: Joseph Schillinger’s “First Airphonic Suite,” from 1929, and the world premiere of Dalit Warshaw’s “Sirens,” a sublimely expressive concerto written especially for Eyck.
A theremin player manipulates sound by moving the hands to alter the electromagnetic field surrounding the theremin’s two antennae (one controls pitch, the other volume) without ever touching the instrument. Even the slightest twitch can send sound whizzing off in one direction or the other; it’s easy to make a sound on the theremin, but very difficult to truly play it well, and maybe this is one reason it’s so often seen as a campy curiosity.
But if there’s anyone who can harness the theremin’s wild potential, it’s Eyck, who as a teenager developed her own method of playing the instrument. With her face almost perfectly still as she sculpted the air around the antennae, she transfixed, conjuring a vast spectrum of sounds and colors over the course of those two pieces.
The “First Airphonic Suite” was a bright synthesis of the old and then-new, buzzing with activity as the theremin line snaked and soared through the orchestra’s rhythmic pistons, cued by Gil Rose. The program note for Warshaw’s “Sirens” explained the many names and leitmotifs the composer had woven in, but not knowing those shouldn’t lessen anyone’s enjoyment of the piece, which unfolds in three strikingly conventional movements: opening and development, slow reverie, chaotic fugue.
At times during “Sirens,” Eyck’s theremin masqueraded as bassoon, violin, cello, electric bass, and even a chorus of human voices — but mostly it was entirely itself, pouring out winding ribbons of fluid, perfectly seamless song. To me, the theremin sounds like idealism. It calls out from a world recovering from war the likes of which humankind had never seen before: a world eagerly testing the possibilities technology might create when it’s not being used to destroy.
For those who missed the show: BMOP is raising funds on Kickstarter to release the theremin/orchestra works on CD. I’m looking forward to hearing it, not least because the balance between theremin and orchestra in the hall strongly favored the orchestra. Eyck also recently released an album of her own work titled “Elegies for Theremin and Voice”; those murmuring and mournful compositions sound absolutely unlike anything she played at Jordan.
The rest of the program stuck to the Roaring Twenties theme. Kurt Weill’s “Little Threepenny Suite,” a wind band adaptation of selections from “The Threepenny Opera,” came alive in moments but never shook off the feeling of being just notes on a page, and the perfunctory endings to each movement didn’t help.
More compelling were two ballets by John Alden Carpenter, “Krazy Kat” and “Skyscrapers.” The first was inspired by George Herriman’s surreal, long-lived newspaper cartoon of the same name, a bizarre love triangle centered on a genderfluid cat and a mouse that loves to chuck bricks at the cat’s head. Dispersed among the tawdry trumpets, jumpy hot-jazz bass and twinkling flourishes, there were more introspective and delicate episodes than one might expect. Looney Tunes this wasn’t.
With percussive streetscape scenes and banjo quotations from popular songs, “Skyscrapers” evoked the promises and perils of 1920s urban life, from busy sidewalks and squawking car horns to vaudeville glitz. A dream sequence depicts a napping janitor who fantasizes a “throw-back to . . . plantation life,” with a faux-African lullaby sung by a chorus. Like many things about race from that era, that didn’t age well, to put it lightly. However, Clifton Ingram’s thoughtful program note placed the episode in critical context, considering its implications through the lens of history and the present day.
BOSTON MODERN ORCHESTRA PROJECT
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.