Collage New Music, led by director David Hoose, presented an eclectic selection of 21st-century chamber works on Monday evening, February 8, at Pickman Hall of the Longy School of Music. Featuring four substantial pieces from four well-established contemporary composers Arlene Sierra, Sebastian Currier, Chen Yi, and Steven Mackey, the ensemble displayed a top-tier performance standard throughout the program. All but Chen Yi’s works were receiving their first Boston performance. Hoose was inclined to share with the audience an exploration of American musical identity, and after some stream-of-consciousness pondering on the subject, affirmed that it is some general sense of pulse that unites the canon of 20th and 21st century American music. All of the composers featured on the program (who, Hoose claims, identify themselves primarily as American composers) present their own distinct integration of pulse into their pieces.
Arlene Sierra’s Cicada Shell opened the concert with the unique experience of a two-movement piece. A number of contemporary composers have approached a two-movements-of-equal-length model while incorporating some idea of dichotomy between the two movements. In Sierra’s piece, we find a mirror-image of sorts in the form, where the first movement is organized into a series of decrescendos while the second is organized into crescendos. The most effective aspects of the piece dealt not with the formal scheme, but with more microscopic elements. The first movement focused the listener in on a series of fairly simple, and very recognizable motives passing around the ensemble above a strong rhythmic drive. While new ideas were introduced, old ones appeared more sparsely, eventually fading away or transforming into newly developed material. The second movement possessed a slightly less present tactus in its eerie and constantly shifting backdrop, with extremely effective use of the piccolo in a small ensemble, courtesy of flutist Christopher Krueger. Despite a somewhat unmotivated ending, the work’s engaging narrative came across clearly, and was performed exquisitely.
Sebastian Currier’s Static opened with the meditative repetition of a single dense chord, immediately establishing a significantly slower, much different sense of pulse in the first of six movements entitled: “Remote,” “Ethereal,” “Bipolar,” “Resonant,” “Charged,” and “Floating.” Each fixated on a central mood or concept. The whole work is quite successful. It was, after all, awarded the 2007 Grawemeyer Award. Percussive textures in “Ethereal” created refreshingly imaginative musical atmospheres, Catherine French’s violin solo in “Resonant” was both beautiful and hypnotic. The later movements, unfortunately, became less engaging. “Charged,” though energetic and exciting, was entirely too square and quickly became unsatisfyingly predictable. “Floating” functioned primarily as a recapitulation of “Remote,” but was so long and repetitive that it seemed to tip the entire piece out of balance.
Chen Yi’s …as like a raging fire… was visceral and relentless, demanding of considerable performance intensity, which it received. Despite the inspired delivery, the composition itself was generally lacking. The piece seemed to be composed entirely of chromatic wedges, with the occasional pentatonic scale arbitrarily inserted. The harmonic language and style came across as anonymous, and the seemingly purposeless interjections of references to traditional Chinese music lacked inspiration or authenticity.
Steven Mackey’s Animated Shorts was a brilliant collection of miniatures featuring Nicholas Tolle on the cimbalom, a Hungarian hammered dulcimer. The novelty of experiencing a virtuosic performance of a rare instrument was only part of the thrill here. Each of the miniatures was effective and thoughtful. While Mackey’s approach to the pieces leaned towards a rock-influenced model, giving up a sense of continuity and development for a more riff-oriented, process-influenced musicality, the various self-contained movements were engaging, emotive, and intensely entertaining. “Depending,” the opening movement, was a full-fledged, aggressive joy-ride, featuring interactive soloistic performances from every angle. “Slippery Dog” morphed through lyrical, alien soundscapes, triumphantly capitalizing on the tonal discrepancies between the cimbalom and piano. The Mackey was a truly potent way to close the evening in alliance with Hoose’s discussion on pulse in American contemporary music.
Collage New Music will present its next concert March 22, at Pickman Hall, and will feature two works by John Harbison, and also works by David McMullin, David Lang, and John Aylward.