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Review: Contemporary Music Champions Celebrate With the Hits

Reviews of classical music concerts generally serve two purposes: Those who went can compare their observations with those of critics, and those who didn’t can see whether they missed out on anything special.

Only a small group could possibly benefit from this review in that first sense, because the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s Carnegie Hall debut on Saturday night attracted less than half a full house. To the rest: You missed out on some of the finest orchestral playing heard in the city this year.

Staffed by freelancers, this orchestra — known as BMOP, and led by Gil Rose — has consistently earned rave reviews, and honors including Musical America’s Ensemble of the Year award. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the group threw itself a party at Carnegie, with a program of music that showed off these players’ chops across a varied landscape of cutting-edge music.

Each piece was having its New York premiere: a concerto for orchestra by Lisa Bielawa (mellifluous and tart, by twists and turns); a half-hour work from Lei Liang (pensive in textural moments, dramatic at climaxes); and “Play,” the award-winner that put Andrew Norman on the map (unbelievably manic yet still emotionally involving).

Has your FOMO set in yet? If so, don’t feel bad: BMOP is rare among orchestras in that the ensemble records much of what it performs. Everything at Carnegie can be heard on different albums devoted to each composer. Still, there’s something thrilling about hearing these dedicated players in a space like Carnegie.

That was clear from the opening seconds of the Bielawa. Titled “In medias res,” it opens with close-harmony dissonance in the horns, a reflection of Bielawa’s taste for both modernism as well as conventional sonic beauty, an edgy opening salvo from an instrument famous for mellow coloring.

If the piece occasionally loses rhythmic dynamism, there is frequently a sumptuous element of orchestration on offer. And in the final moments of the second movement, you might hear a slight influence of Philip Glass’s furiously churning symphonic music. This might be a conscious tip of the cap — Bielawa has long been a vocalist in the Philip Glass Ensemble — or it might reflect her protean engagement with orchestral traditions writ large.

Either way, this nearly half-hour work achieved a sustained richness that is too seldom heard in concerts by the so-called major American orchestras. When those organizations commission new music, it’s usually shorter. But with BMOP, contemporaneity is the whole point, so composers can take the time they need.

Wide-canvas potential worked to Liang’s advantage as well. In his piece, “A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams” — inspired by the landscape paintings of Huang Binhong — the composer often alternates between wisps of percussion and full-blast density. But the climaxes, satisfying and riotous as they may be, are not the final destination; even after the climactic-seeming tutti riffs in “The Shedding of Landscapes” comes a restive percussive section. A piece like this needs real space on a program, as it had on Saturday.

After intermission, BMOP took on “Play,” its most famous contribution to the orchestral literature. In liner notes for the album version, Norman wrote, “I wish you all could see ‘Play’ performed live.” That’s because the piece has a meta level: It’s not just about the beautifully active sounds that he conceives, but also about how sections of the ensemble interact.

That is especially true of the second movement, which can seem somewhat airy on the recorded version. Live, you get a sense of how percussionists in the orchestra are able to switch various other sections “on” or “off,” thanks to dramatic woodblock claps. There’s an aleatoric conception at work here, too: The choices of the percussionists can augment what parts are played by the rest of the orchestra. On Saturday, music for prepared-sounding piano took on a prominent role.

In the outer sections, though, “Play” seemed galvanic in a way that was familiar from BMOP’s celebrated recording. Rose launched into the vicious opening movement at a tempo a touch more frenetic than on the album, but it was still marvelously controlled.

The title of Saturday’s concert, “Play It Again,” was in part a reference to the Norman. But it was also a reminder that, unlike traditional orchestras — which often commission a new piece, play it once and then stuff the score in an archive — BMOP actually revisits the work it solicits and champions.

In 2016, Rose told The New York Times, “I don’t like to put a lot of money into marketing.” Instead, the funds go into the playing. The artistic fruits of that approach were gratifyingly confirmed during the poorly attended show on Saturday. But what if BMOP, instead of renting Carnegie for one night, were made Perspective artist for a full season there? Then audiences in New York might enjoy a season of sparkling contemporary music from artists who really know how to play it.

Boston Modern Orchestra Project

Performed on Saturday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan;

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