All In For Modernism, Dauntless Orchestra Celebrates 25 Years

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Gil Rose, artistic director of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, leading the ensemble in a recording session.

BOSTON — Never been to a Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert? You’re not the only one.

BMOP concerts aren’t popular. Try attracting people to Jordan Hall for programs dedicated to Harold Shapero, Lei Liang, Alan Hovhaness, or Lewis Spratlan. Those composers have Grawemeyers, Pulitzers, Grammys — and not much of an audience.

But BMOP isn’t celebrating a 25th anniversary because it’s not popular. In creating a mammoth recording legacy on its BMOP Sound label, close to 100 single-composer discs, the orchestra that Gil Rose founded in 1996 has had its own profound success.

Gil Rose (Liz Linder photography)

BMOP begins the anniversary celebration, postponed a year, in Boston, with a rare appearance at Symphony Hall on Feb. 18 — “taking advantage of the great organ there,” Rose says. With soloist Paul Jacobs, BMOP offers a free concert featuring major works by Stephen Paulus, Joseph Jongen, Olivier Messaien, and J.S. Bach.

Along the anniversary journey — “it starts at Symphony Hall and it ends at Carnegie Hall,” Rose says, referring to a spring 2023 date — BMOP will also dedicate a concert to Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and launch a city-wide venture with Rose’s other organization, Odyssey Opera.

That collaboration begins with Anthony DavisX, The Life and Times of Malcolm X, this June, with bass-baritone Davóne Tines. The series will eventually include operas by Ulysses Kay, Nkeiru Okoye, and William Grant Still, and a commission from Jonathan Bailey Holland.

BMOP isn’t the only ensemble dedicated to new music, but no orchestra has a comparable archive. BMOP Sound, releasing discs almost monthly, includes broad traversal of the modernist repertoire, a century of American composition.

Underperformed gems get sprinkled with the works of living composers. Alongside the Shaperos and Hovhanesses are discs by John Harbison, Matthew Aucoin, Elena Ruehr, Chinary Ung, Tobias Picker, and Lisa Bielawa.

Rose conducts some works in concert and then completes the composer portraits with multi-day “recordathons” — “a mix of rehearsal and recording,” says principal bass Anthony D’Amico. The repertoire mix might not attract boisterous audiences, but it definitely provides musical energy, as well as steady work for a robust group from Boston’s freelance community.

The flow of discs shows no signs of stopping.

“We just released our 85th CD,” Rose says, “we hope to be near 100 by the end of the year.”

Orchestras perform new works on occasion; BMOP does it all the time. Everyone points to the amount of preparation required.

Rachel Braude, Boston Modern Orchestra Project flutist-piccoloist

“It’s the most challenging situation for a musician, and everyone takes crazy pride,” says Rachel Braude, flutist-piccoloist since BMOP’s inception. “The BMOP recordathons are like an Ironman — it’s insane. Five days, eight hours a day, back-to-back. It’s so hard, and magical, that it happens. You can’t prepare the way you do for Beethoven and Shostakovich. There you have reference. This is just notes on a page.”

“BMOP players come prepared,” D’Amico says. “You can’t just sight-read stuff. If you don’t come prepared, you’re done. Gil knows what he wants, and there’s no ambiguity on the podium.”

“If you don’t do a good job, you’re not invited back,” Braude says.

“You have to be ready,” principal trumpet Terry Everson says. “You don’t get a week to rehearse something. But the first time it’s being played, it’s liberating. You’re doing things that nobody has done. Gil just guides you there. The way it comes out, everyone is involved.”

The recordings did not begin until 2008, after the orchestra had performed for a more than a decade. In the early days, there was plenty of wait-and-see.

“I had a friend who asked me to fill a third trumpet chair for some new music,” Everson says. “It was my first session in town. I thought it was chamber music, but there was this full orchestra onstage. And my third trumpet part had all these offstage solos, like Flying Dutchman quotes. What a ride. Gil has unearthed everything from mid-century on.”

Principal trumpet Terry Everson

“I played the very first concert, Appalachian Spring in Paine Hall at Harvard,” D’Amico says. “I thought it was probably one-and-done. How did Gil do it — get to 25 years?”

“I feel that this is all going to matter deeply,” Braude says of the repertoire choices, “just not right now. You just need to be open. You don’t have to know anything, and you don’t have to like it. You just need to live with it for a while, to build a relationship. I am not just executing something. We are the actual creators. We’re all in admiration of the work, and it’s so meaningful for composers. It feels like righting a wrong.”

Taking a whole year to celebrate an anniversary seems an appropriate pace for Rose. “I very much wanted BMOP to represent all styles and catholic tastes,” he says, “and not to decide that American music was this or that over the last hundred years.

“Things from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s are being forgotten, but I’m kinda holding on to them. We just released Gail Kubik’s Symphony Concertante. It has a Pulitzer (awarded in 1952), but who remembers? Our CD is too small — the guy also wrote two kick-ass symphonies. I have the Guinness record for conducting the most pieces once, but if I hadn’t made that happen, that piece would be on a shelf.”

Asked about another 25 years, Rose says, “Gil Rose might decide he’s not interested. Who would do this intentionally? People who are making repertoire decisions are not particularly interested in repertoire. They’re not interested in finding out what they don’t know. And they’re certainly not interested in advocating for their art form.

Gil Rose conducting the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. (Liz Linder photography)

“It has some great difficulties, and some fabulous advantages. But to be a driving force behind important cultural work . . .” He leaves the thought unfinished.

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project begins its anniversary season with a free concert Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. in Boston’s Symphony Hall. For tickets, go here, or call (781) 324-0396.