For the 50th anniversary season of Boston Musica Viva — the city’s pioneering professional ensemble dedicated to new music — director and founder Richard Pittman asked composers who had long associations with the ensemble to write brief bagatelles. That was all the instruction he gave them.
“I rarely tell a composer what to do. I ask a composer to think, what does she or he really want to write right now?” Pittman, who has helmed Musica Viva since its 1969 inception, said over a bowl of soup in Harvard Square. “One time . . . I asked [Michael Gandolfi] to write a piece for a world music program, and he told me later his reaction was ‘What is he doing telling me what to write?’ ”
Musica Viva’s season concludes Saturday evening at Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall in Cambridge. The concert includes premieres of bagatelles by Andy Vores and Kathryn Salfelder, new pieces by Yu-Hui Chang and Bernard Hoffer, and two ensemble favorites by Nicholas Maw and John Huggler.
Pittman’s embrace of new music dates to his student days at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute when he participated in an inter-conservatory symposium stacked with music composed by his peers.
“I played my trombone in every piece, and I thought ‘This is really fantastic! This music is just as new as I am,’ ” he said. “I still have this feeling. I’m no longer 19 years old, but this music excites me.’’ The opportunity to program, said Pittman, nudged him toward conducting.
“He’s not only looking for the person who’s hot right now, or really popular,” said Gabriela Diaz, who plays violin and viola in Musica Viva, in a phone interview. “It’s also young composers . . . giving them a voice, and a chance for their music to be heard on the same concert with somebody who’s established, like a Boulez.”
Diaz added that she admired that Pittman has consistently commissioned women through the years without calling attention to it. “It’s just a part of who he is, and you notice that even if it’s not, like, in your face.”
Pittman came upon the idea for Musica Viva shortly after he arrived to teach at New England Conservatory in the late 1960s. He noticed that university music departments hosted contemporary concerts, but no professional group existed. “I asked around about who the best musicians would be to do modern music, and I called them up,” he said.
After two years, Pittman said, Musica Viva had become so popular that it outgrew its original venue, Harvard University’s Busch-Reisinger Museum, and moved to Longy. “There was a lot of joy,” said founding flautist John Heiss of the early years.
Since the beginning, the ensemble has been anchored by a small core of players, with many guests appearing as scores demand. A wide range of musical styles has always been its hallmark. “I think that’s one thing that fired the audience,” said Heiss. It championed a handful of composers who went on to win Pulitzer Prizes, including Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Joseph Schwantner, and John Harbison.
“My opera, ‘Full Moon in March’ . . . was a piece I wrote with no commission. I was looking for a performance, and Dick [Pittman] actually decided to do an actual production,” Harbison commented via phone.
Though financial hardship sometimes threatened, Pittman credited a succession of good managers (including, in the mid-1970s, current New York Philharmonic president Deborah Borda) with helping the ensemble survive.
Less predictable crises also emerged, he recalled, included a terrifying midnight bus ride through the Balkan Mountains with a non-English-speaking driver during an Eastern European tour in the mid-’80s anda scramble some years later to find a replacement for a clarinetist who broke his jaw right before a concert with Luciano Berio in attendance.
Pittman doesn’t think his style of leadership has changed much over the decades. “The only thing is that as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten mellower, and a little more patient. I’m very meticulous and picky about a performance,” he says.
‘He is . . . not a coercive, controlling sort of conductor, which is why people will stay with him for a while. And he believes in the pieces that he does.’
“He is . . . not a coercive, controlling sort of conductor, which is why people will stay with him for a while,” Harbison added. “And he believes in the pieces that he does — that’s a key point about any leader of groups like that.”
Could there ever be a Musica Viva without Pittman? To keep going another 50 years, he said, would require another music director who cares about the ensemble as much as he does.
“He really is so much a part of the group,” Diaz said. “I assume he would want the group to continue with his mission. I hope it would too. But it does feel like it’s so much about what he’s cultivated and created.”
“Music is sort of my religion,’’ said Pittman, “and as a performer, it’s my duty to make sure that the best music gets played and appreciated.”
BOSTON MUSICA VIVA
At Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music, Cambridge. 617-354-6910, www.bmv.orgZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.