Since her stint as a Composition Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center in 2008, Helen Grime has had seven pieces, three of them TMC commissions, performed in the Berkshires. Her latest, Limina, is a joint TMC/BSO commission, having received its world premiere this past July in Ozawa Hall. With this week’s program, Grime makes her Symphony Hall debut and the Boston Symphony itself plays her music for the first time.

Johannes Moser © Manfred Esser | Haenssler Classic
Johannes Moser
© Manfred Esser | Haenssler Classic

Limina is the plural of the Latin limen, meaning boundary or threshold, which Grime interprets musically as transition. The lines between episodes blur and contrasting themes bleed into each other like the waters of a lake lapping at the shoreline. Her concept has its roots in the imagery of a chapter from the 1963 Norwegian novel by Tarjei Vesaas, The Ice Palace, where one of the protagonists searches the chambers of a frozen waterfall, the magical ice palace of the title, for her friend and responds to various aspects of her situation and surroundings. Grime creates a foreground and a background with sections and different combinations of sections prominent then ceding to new ones. Rhythmic and harmonic variation create contrast and drive as various motifs of varying duration overlap. Brass dominates at the outset against a  shimmering icy sheen of violins and harp. Whirling woodwinds create a subtle dizzying effect. Vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel and tubular bells cascade like falling icicles and shimmer with the varied textures of ice formations. Transparency turns to opacity as intensity and turbulence escalate culminating in a shattering fortissimo. Strings now take the foreground in a dream world haunted by the murmurs of three arpeggiating solo violins. The music repeats, swelling and subsiding several times before dwindling into uneasy silence.

Giancarlo Guerrero, who has demonstrated his flair for contemporary music in previous visits, had the rhythmic challenges under control, less so the balance and dynamics which would allow all the score’s complexities breathing room. It may well be that only an expertly miked broadcast or recording can accomplish this.

Though the BSO gave the world premiere and made the first recording of Walton’s Cello Concerto in 1957, it has only been programmed three times since. Johannes Moser, however, confessed he was “blown away” when he first heard the work and has become an advocate ever since. He played with complete and infectious conviction often swaying and digging in with his upper body to begin the Moderato with a full-throated, amber tone. Moser and Guerrero picked up on the opening ticking clock motif, which recurs at the close, to add a carpe diem strain of melancholy to the skein of melody. Rhythm and speed replaced long melodic lines as Moser raced through the agitated and challenging Allegro appassionato. Though Walton abhorred cadenzas, the concluding Tema con improvvisazioni turned into an extended, cadenza-like spontaneous showdown between orchestra and soloist. Subdued echoes of the first movement returned as the ticking clock wound down and Moser’s cello died on a sustained low C, signaling time’s up.

The subdued tone of yearning and supplication of Duruflé’s Requiem was welcome consolation after the suggestions of death closing the first two pieces. The liturgy’ s pleas for eternal rest and perpetual light prevail; the desperate cries and apocalyptic drama of larger scale requiems like those of Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi are absent. What drama there is animates the longest sections, Domine Jesu Christe, and the Libera me. Duruflé closes quietly and intimately with In Paradisum describing the soul’s final resting place amongst angels and saints. Guerrero, the chorus, and the children’s choir created a pulsing, glowing nimbus of comforting sound as Duruflé combines traditional chant and organ with contemporary French orchestral writing. The joyful Sanctus shone brightest amongst the more contemplative passages. Unfortunately, complete surrender to the soothing embrace of the singing was undermined by the whack-a-mole distraction of the children’s choir constantly popping up and down.

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