in: Reviews

April 3, 2017

Collage Showcases “Heroes and Anti-Heroes”

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Collage New Music 45th season “celebrating new music in Boston” and this year honoring David Hoose’s 25th anniversary as music director concluded last night at Longy’s Pickman Auditorium by bringing together two local composers, with another from Pittsburgh, and honoring the memory of Cambridge’s own Donald Sur, who died eight years ago, with performances of four of his pieces.  Collage’s excellent nuclear group featured: Christopher Krueger, flute; Robert Annis, clarinet; Catherine French, violin; Joel Moerschel, cello; and Christopher Oldfather, piano; in the percussion section, Frank Epstein, founder of the ensemble, returned to join regular Aaron Trant. David Hoose needed no baton to lead this finely-tuned group.

Eric Chasalow, who teaches at Brandeis, heard Christopher Krueger play his Flute Concerto, titled Three Love Poems. The first movement, Flight and confessions, tossed around a dizzyingly rapid texture of mixed, brittle gestures that included diatonic fragments, some converging chromatic scales in the piano, and frantic writing for the solo flute that was sometimes hard to hear against the background. Eggshell, more like a heart formed the contrasting slow movement, rather in the form of a dialogue between flute and paired violin and cello playing high harmonics, a thin sostenuto texture of expressive melodic lines. Feather, breath, mirror returned to the animated atmosphere, this time with outbursts of repeated notes, often in groups of five, with some elegantly bent pitches for the low-register flute; near the end came something like a reprise of the slow-movement dialogue texture. As a whole it disclosed an elegant chamber-music ambience, but not as a flute concerto so much as an effective concerto-for-everybody.

Elegy (with Rabbit) by MIT professor Peter Child for alto flute, clarinet, cello, percussion, and piano in its United States premiere revealed a quietly expressive, moving piece was written in memory of the composer’s father, who died in 2016 at age 90. The elder Child had served in the Royal Air Force during World War II; a popular song of the time, “Run, Rabbit, Run,” had been a favorite of his, and the composer included a segment of it near the end of the work.  Elegy moved in phrases and pauses regulated by a warm melody in the cello, with undulating woodwind textures and waves of broken chords in the piano above, surging and fading from soft to loud and back again with a cymbal roll. The complexly diatonic harmony reminded me of the music of Gerald Finzi, which Child, a native Englishman, could have known from his early days.

To wrap up, Eric Moe, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, offered a big piece called Superhero, in five continuous movements, drawing some of its inspiration from the beloved comic books of the 1950s and ‘60s (I still cherish the ones I have managed to hang onto). The full ensemble mobilized: flute (with piccolo), clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion (trap set plus crotales). In Learning to fly, the first movement, a relentless march beat, with melody in strongly tonal octaves was answered by piano with snare drum, and flams in the other instruments.  This led into Early loss, with a low D pulse repeated in cello and piano. Rescuing a planet in distress brought in a fast 6/8 with furious triplets, subsequently relieved by slow section with tremolo Gsharp high in the piano to offset an expressive violin-cello duet below (“Existential crisis [What’s it all for?]”). The finale, Showdown with evil twin, the march beat was resumed with a surging piano texture, relentless bass triplets, and a gradual crescendo to ff, twice; the ensemble enthusiasm was palpable, and the audience reacted in like fashion.

Four short works by the late Donald Sur were interspersed in the proceedings. Collage had performed them all before, and all are available on Collage’s CD (Albany Records TROY1134). The concert opener, A Neo-Platonic Epistrophe While Crossing Times Square for piano, violin, cello and clarinet (1980), was diatonic, with a quasi-pop harmonic beat, staccato, with long rests. Before the intermission came a haunting, gentle Berceuse for violin and piano, Sur’s last composition (1999); a much earlier piece followed, Catena III, (1961, revised 1970), for flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, and mixed percussion (marimba and tambourine; bongos, suspended cymbal, maracas). In its four minutes, it represented the composer in his post-Webern, Princetonian phase; the piece is laid out in short, spastic bursts of three- and four-note bunches, long sustained tones, and lengthy rests, never failing to sustain intensity of interest. Sur eventually hitched together the 1982 Collage commission Satori on Park Avenue, with Epistrophe under the title of New Yorker Sketches. Unified by a relentless motif from “Tea for Two,” mostly in the piano, it also includes the Westminster chimes and a brief, almost concealed citation of “What Wondrous Love Is This.” It was fascinating to hear once more this mysterious but irresistible work; the materials are so slight and yet every note counts.

In an informal symposium before the concert began, the composers present discussed their music. John Harbison joined in to speak on the music and life of Donald Sur, a sui generis composer who had been a good friend and colleague of many in the audience.  Harbison pointed out that Sur had a unique and personal sense of what minimalism in music should be, saying that “his commitment to abstraction was very deep.” And, one might add, about as different from Philip Glass or Steve Reich as could be — even a Romantic sense of minimality.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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