Guest composer Lee Hyla’s “Lives of the Saints,” a work for solo voice and chamber ensemble, not only took theology as its subject, but also amounted to a virtual musical treatise.
All the better, then, that a group versed in the composer’s output performed it: Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Under conductor Gil Rose, a Westmoreland County native and a graduate of Carnegie Mellon who briefly ran the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, Hyla’s ambitious work regaled the listener.
Written in 2000, “Lives of the Saints” was Mahlerian in scope and beauty, seeking to encompass an entire world through varied techniques and diverse accounts of spiritual rapture — all with only nine musicians. While seamless to the ear, the through-composed score constantly shifted from atmospheric to thematic, from tutti to solo accompaniment, from extended technique to orchestral treatment.
Hyla also differed his approach to the individual movements, devoted each to texts from hagiographies of St. Jerome, St. Francis and others, and Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.”
Binding the staggering complexity together was mezzo-soprano Mary Nessinger. Channeling Maria Falconetti in “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc,” Nessinger’s expressive visage alternated from beaming in ecstasy to writhing in agony. She embodied characters with smooth mutability and multiplicity of tone.
This aided the expression of the texts, some of which bordered on inscrutable. Rose displayed a keen understanding of how to pace the large work and to balance the evolving backdrop that included melodica and hammered dulcimer.
With glorious treatment and compelling writing, “Saints” should join the musical canon, too.