As all classical music fans know, the era of giant, long-established labels like RCA, Columbia, Deutsche Grammophon, Mercury, Decca, Delos, and Telarc pouring out new releases by American orchestras has waned. Most new orchestra recordings these days originate in Europe, where costs are lower. If an American orchestra wants to document its legacy on CD or downloads (or even, in rare cases, on vinyl), it typically does so on an “in-house” label owned and operated by the orchestra itself. These in-house releases, often recorded during the orchestra’s regular concert performances, are intended more to enhance its prestige and patronage than to generate the profit from sales that motivates commercial recordings.
The much-praised cycle of Mahler’s ten symphonies recorded by the San Francisco Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas, for example, is available only on the orchestra’s own label, which also offers three dozen or so more recordings of the orchestra’s performances. The Chicago Symphony has 20 recordings on its CSO Resound label, with works by Bruckner, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky, while the more-adventurous Seattle Symphony label now has about the same number, including highly-praised renditions of the complete orchestral music of the great French composer Henri Dutilleux.
Foremost among American orchestras that specialize in music written since World War II—“the music formerly known as classical” as it’s described—is the Boston Modern Orchestra Project or BMOP (pronounced “Beemop”), founded in 1996, and its house label, BMOP/sound, which began releasing CDs of the orchestra’s recordings in 2008.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of this undertaking. It’s certainly of deep interest for anyone who cares about the concert music of the past century, and a vital part of today’s American musical culture in general. True, there have been some notable predecessors. The Louisville Orchestra’s “First Edition” series, for instance, commissioned, played, and released premiere recordings of symphonic works by modern composers from the mid-1950s to the 1980s. Many other valuable recordings of then-new music came from such enterprises as Columbia’s Modern American Music series, CRI, and New World Records, a tradition carried on today by such labels as Albany and Naxos.
But for the first two decades of the 21st century BMOP has been one of the dominant forces in programming and recording new and neglected modern American concert music, with BMOP/sound offering a wealth of releases consistently notable for the scope and daring of the repertoire, the superior expertise and polish of the performances, and the strict adherence to the highest standards of sonic accuracy. Even BMOP/sound’s detailed and authoritative program notes and colorful, imaginative cover art reflect the unstinting care put into every facet of these releases.
TAS readers should take note, if they haven’t yet discovered modern-era concert music, of the huge variety of fresh and imaginative instrumental (and vocal) textures, timbres, and techniques explored by 20th and 21st century composers. Especially in the wake of such iconic masterpieces as Debussy’s La Mer, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, the whole conception of what an orchestra can do has been vastly expanded. Much of the music on BMOP/sound (most of it recorded in the New England Conservatory’s sonically superlative Jordan Hall, some of the larger works in Wooster’s more spacious Mechanics Hall) is packed with intricate and novel instrumental pyrotechnics, and to hear the modern symphonic orchestra in its full splendor, rendered with a rich, vivid presentation that conveys all the detail, dynamic range, timbral subtleties, and acoustic space, is quite simply stunning. Great audio gear was made for the orchestral showpieces of our time.
BMOP is the brain-child of conductor and artistic director Gil Rose, who founded and has led the orchestra for the past 22 years, adding its house label 12 years later. I had a chance to talk to Gil about these endeavors early in January this year. His responses to my questions revealed an ardent devotion to this long-running project to rescue, preserve, and promote modern American orchestral music that otherwise would continue to be lost in obscurity.