David Stock did not hold back. That one thing about the late composer is for sure; his music was unfettered by any sort of self-consciousness or reticence. His works are an unabashed good time, and the bluntness of his titles reflect a musical personality full of good humor: Plenty of Horn, Blast!, Sax Appeal, Knockout. David was an up-front kind of guy, and was profoundly focused on creating, promoting, and nurturing the finest musical art. He left an indelible mark on the American musical landscape in long associations with some of the country’s finest orchestras. Through his creation of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and his work with other Pittsburgh institutions, he brought amazing culture and musical vitality to the Rust Belt.
Who better than Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project to do justice to his work? Rose shares Stock’s ties to Pittsburgh (both were educated at Carnegie Mellon), and his no-nonsense, quality-above-all-else attitude. In response to the often modest size of BMOP’s concert audience, Rose told the New York Times, “I don’t like to put a lot of money into marketing because I’d rather put it on the stage.” He has focused on building an orchestra of the Boston area’s finest freelancers and focusing their collective musical might into the most consummate performances of contemporary music, with a special emphasis on preserving the music of living composers in high-quality recordings with his own BMOP/Sound label.
Rose and BMOP explore Stock’s concertos in this latest release, teaming up with soloists who were close with the composer. The Cuban-born violinist Andrés Cárdenes premiered Stock’s earlier 1995 Violin Concerto with Pittsburgh Symphony during his time as that orchestra’s concertmaster, and aside from his usual spectacular virtuosity brings a special affinity to this music. He seemingly devours every note and rhythm in the Concierto Cubano (2000), particularly in the tango-like third movement “Dancing, with fire.” That third movement is not far from the textures and harmonies of the final movement of Copland’s Clarinet Concerto (both works are scored for soloist and string orchestra), revealing some of the underpinnings of the Americana in Stock’s orchestral sound. Though BMOP’s intonation begins to fray slightly in the course of some rapid and challenging passagework, the orchestra executes this music with resolute confidence and poise under Rose.
Stock’s music is not all pyrotechnics: the lyricism that rounds out the works on this release actually makes the collection quite accessible for newcomers to his music. The second piece on the disc is especially demanding of a special seriousness in addition to the trademark Stock joviality, and oboist Alex Klein is fully committed, giving an almost operatic performance. In Oborama, Stock presents a series of five character pieces that each feature a different instrument, touring us through the oboe family from English horn to musette (piccolo oboe), oboe d’amore, and bass oboe before giving the final word to the standard oboe itself. Klein is an especially adept practitioner of the instrument to excel on all five, giving life to each instrument’s character as portrayed in the five-movement drama. If you know of another work that features five instruments of the oboe family, please tell us. It must have been a rare treat to see this work in live performance – we are super jealous.
There’s more live performance FOMO in Lisa Pegher’s recording of Stock’s Percussion Concerto, which is whoa!-inducing from the start. Stock strikes up an unbalanced dialogue between soloist and orchestra at the outset, with the soloist interjecting thunderously among soft string chords à la Ives’ The Unanswered Question (or the second movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, with roles reversed). Pegher masterfully captures the underlying tension of the inward-looking second movement (marked “Introspective”), and the soft tones of the marimba never seem to wander aimlessly. She’s right at home as the fully battery is unleashed in the jubilantly syncopated finale, and BMOP is up for the mad scramble of notes as well. Stock has written another fearsome part for the orchestral timpanist in this concerto, and BMOP’s Craig McNutt trades blows with the soloist with aplomb.
I first met David Stock at a Seattle Symphony rehearsal in 2007, when the orchestra was preparing for a performance of his work Blast! under Gerard Schwarz. One of my favorite memories of David comes from one of the many conversations we had at performances of the Pittsburgh Symphony (did he miss a single one?), when I reminded him of that occasion in Seattle. He exclaimed at me from behind his suspenders and massive glasses, “It’s not just Blast, you know, it’s Blast! With an EXCLAMATION POINT!” Speaking of Stock with Jerry Schwarz in Pittsburgh in 2014, Schwarz said to me: “We chose to feature David’s music in a program of the All-Star Orchestra. He always said, ‘It’s not just Blast, you know, it’s Blast! With an EXCLAMATION POINT!’”
David was an unforgettable person, and the infectious character of his music is felt both by those familiar with his work and experiencing it for the first time. Though this latest BMOP release was recorded before his passing in November 2015 and was never meant as a eulogy for the composer, it serves as a fitting tribute, wrapped in the blinding virtuosity, good humor, and friendship that these musicians do best.
Geoffrey Larson is a host on Second Inversion, and is the Music Director of Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra.